At Toronto’s Pearson airport, the possibility of a runway collision arises more than once a day on average. According to the Toronto Star’s analysis of Transport Canada data, the airport has experienced 5,677 runway incursions – in which an unexpected aircraft, vehicle or pedestrian enters the runway space – since 1999, an average of nearly 400 per year. At the heart of the problem is outdated air traffic control software, which often provides controllers with inadequate warning and can sometimes complicate situations further.
Such runway incursion incidents are a concern worldwide, Mark Clitsome, director of air investigations for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, told the Star. The most fatal of such incidents occurred when two jumbo jets collided on the runway in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people. Clitsome noted that the number of incursions has not decreased in recent years.
Part of the problem is due to the constant element of human error, the Star noted. However, technology is also involved: Toronto’s radar system that monitors surface movement runs on software that the safety board flagged in 2007 for providing insufficient warning time to prevent collisions. Six years later, the software remains unchanged.
“This is an industry that involves a lot of humans and therefore we always have to be conscious of the human error element,” Rob Thurgur, assistant vice-president of operational support for Canada’s air traffic control system agency, Nav Canada, told the Star. He added, “That’s . . . why we have the procedures and the vigilance that is trying to mitigate the human error out of the aviation system.”
Getting air traffic control right
One of the major impediments to implementing better air traffic control technology has been the difficulty of fixing errors in the new system, the Star reported. Although a new system was supposed to be introduced last September, recent estimates anticipate its release at some point this fall.
“We frankly ran into some software complications and we’ve had to make some changes,” Thugur explained. “We’re still working towards making that upgrade.”
Ensuring a smooth release is particularly important given the criticality of air traffic control systems, Thurgur added. He noted that the complexity of the systems means that they take a long time to implement.
Similar problems have been noted at London’s Heathrow airport, according to a recent BBC article. While much of the country has adopted automated control software that can help predict collisions as soon as 18 minutes before they are expected to occur, the density of flights going into southeast England is so high that the software cannot forecast collisions with any accuracy. The airport still places a heavy reliance on human controllers.
“When you implement technology in air traffic… it has to be 99.999 percent working,” Paul Haskins, general manager of the U.K.’s air traffic control agency, Nats, told the news source.
To ensure that software is up to the quality standards required in critical environments such as air traffic control, vendors can eliminate flaws with tools such as static analysis software. Using automated source code analysis tools, it is possible to spot potential errors before they are released, which can be essential as airports look to iron out any wrinkles that might lead to dangerous incidents such as runway incursions.
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