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Transborder Flights Without a Flight Plan-Revisited
by Edgar Allain, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector, System Safety, Atlantic Region,Transport Canada

The last time we addressed the subject of flight plan requirements for transborder flights was in issue 3/2004 of the Aviation Safety Letter (ASL). It was reported that over a two-year period, some 82 alleged violations were observed nationally of aircraft crossing the border with flight plans that were either inactive or simply not filed. There were about 20 from the Atlantic Region, but the vast majority of contraventions concerned flights originating from the Pacific Region. A national search of the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) revealed 76 similar occurrences, between September 2000 and September 2003, with most flights originating in United States. Another interesting note is that in most cases, customs arrangements were made for the flight.

Flying across the border? No problem, but plan for it!
Flying across the border? No problem, but plan for it!

A more recent search of the Transport Canada Civil Aviation enforcement database shows that during the period of January 2003–June 2006 there were approximately 157 occurrences nationally, giving a national average of about 80 occurrences a year, with the highest number of incidents being in the Atlantic Region. The Atlantic yearly average is approximately 23 occurrences. It appears that in spite of the best intentions in raising the awareness bar, little progress has been made in this area. One has to ask why this continues to occur and what steps need to be taken next in order to effect a behavioral change in our respective pilot populations.

Previous articles written on this subject appear to make the assumption that because the majority of incidents occurred with aircraft arriving from the United States, the awareness issue must be mostly a south-of-the-border problem. Albeit that there are an increasing number of airplanes and visitors arriving from the United States, I feel there exists both latent and active weaknesses on both sides of the border that may be contributing to this ongoing issue.

Before we review the procedure for conducting transborder flights between Canada and the United States, I think it is important to visit how each country carries out domestic flights. Then I will outline several sources of information on the topic of transborder flights.

In the United States, although highly encouraged, VFR flight plans are not required by the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) for domestic flights. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) makes reference to VFR:

FAA AIM, 5-1-4
Flight Plan-VFR Flights

  1. Except for operations in or penetrating a Coastal or Domestic ADIZ or DEWIZ a flight plan is not required for VFR flight.

If a VFR flight plan is filed:

FAA AIM 5-1-4

e. Pilots are encouraged to give their departure times directly to the FSS serving the departure airport or as otherwise indicated by the FSS when the flight plan is filed. This will ensure more efficient flight plan service and permit the FSS to advise you of significant changes in aeronautical facilities or meteorological conditions. When a VFR flight plan is filed, it will be held by the FSS until 1 hour after the proposed departure time unless:

1. The actual departure time is received.

2. A revised proposed departure time is received.

3. At a time of filing, the FSS is informed that the proposed departure time will be met, but actual time cannot be given because of inadequate communications (assumed departures).

f. On pilot’s request, at a location having an active tower, the aircraft identification will be forwarded by the tower to the FSS for reporting the actual departure time. This procedure should be avoided at busy airports.

So, in effect, a VFR flight plan has to be activated before it becomes in effect or minimally, contact must be made with an ATS to advise of an assumed departure. After discussions with both FAA and industry pilots in the United States, it is my understanding that, although infrequent, it is not uncommon for VFR flights to be conducted in the United States without flight plans being filed-especially where the following conditions exist: high density traffic areas, numerous airports, accessible flight following with air traffic control, and/or the flight is relatively short. Under these conditions, one can see how the perceived importance of a VFR flight plan could diminish, with little regard to search and rescue (SAR) implications.

In Canada, it is mandatory that a flight plan or itinerary be filed and the activation is automatic, based on an assumed departure, as outlined in the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs), as follows:

Requirement to File a Flight Plan or a Flight Itinerary

602.73(1) Subject to subsection (3), no pilot-in-command shall operate an aircraft in IFR flight unless an IFR flight plan has been filed.

(2) No pilot-in-command shall operate an aircraft in VFR flight unless a VFR flight plan or a VFR flight itinerary has been filed, except where the flight is conducted within 25 nautical miles of the departure aerodrome.

Filing of a Flight Plan or a Flight Itinerary

602.75(1) A flight plan shall be filed with an air traffic control unit, a flight service station or a community aerodrome radio station.

(2) A flight itinerary shall be filed with a responsible person, an air traffic control unit, a flight service station or a community aerodrome radio station.

(3) A flight plan or flight itinerary shall be filed by

(a) sending, delivering or otherwise communicating the flight plan or flight itinerary or the information contained therein; and

(b) receiving acknowledgement that the flight plan or flight itinerary or the information contained therein has been received.

So, effectively, while Canada and the United States have similar procedures, the combination of mandatory versus optional flight filing and assumed departures versus required activation has created some degree of confusion, as evidenced by recurring transborder flight plan incidents.

Two types of failures seem to be at play: latent and active. The latent failure is that the two countries have very similar aviation systems with a difference in how VFR flight plans are activated. This difference is embedded in the documents and procedures and, without careful research, can be missed. The active failure is that pilots are either unfamiliar with VFR flight plans, due to a lack of usage, or simply have a pre-conceived expectation that flight plans will be automatically activated in the United States as they are in Canada. In either case, it behooves pilots flying in both countries to become familiar with the regulations pertaining to VFR flights in each country.

Regulatory requirements are specific. CAR 602.73 (4) reads: “Notwithstanding anything in this Division, no pilot-in-command shall, unless a flight plan has been filed, operate an aircraft between Canada and a foreign state.” U.S. FAR 91.707 reads: “Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, no person may operate a civil aircraft between Mexico or Canada and the United States without filing an IFR or VFR flight plan, as appropriate.”

Four additional sources offer various levels of hands-on information on the topic: The Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual (TC AIM), the Canada Flight Supplement (CFS), the FAA’s International Flight Information Manual and a publication produced jointly by the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) called The AOPA/COPA Guide to Cross Border Operations (United States/Canada). The AOPA/COPA guide is available to its members. Here is a short summary of their content:

  • The TC AIM RAC, sections 3.6.1 to 3.6.4 specify when a flight plan is required, how it can be filed, and the means by which it can be opened. References to appropriate CARs are listed.
  • The CFS does include information on how to file a flight plan and how to file an arrival report, but not how to open a flight plan.
  • The Flight Planning Notes section of the FAA International Flight Information Manual provides specific information on the purpose of international flight plans and the filing process. However, no information could be found concerning how to open and close international flight plans.
  • The AOPA/COPA Guide to Cross Border Operations (United States/Canada) is a comprehensive guide consisting of five chapters, four appendices and a checklist for trans-border operations. The guide covers a wide range of topics, including everything from pre-flight planning to customs procedures and in Chapter 5 addresses flight plans, required information, filing, and closing of VFR flight plans, but falls short of addressing flight plan activation and the differences between the USA and Canada in this regard.

In closing, occurrences remain quite frequent, and do not yet show an appreciable downward trend. Valuable enforcement resources are tied up investigating a large number of cases, while enforcing regulations that have a minimal impact on aviation safety (although the activation of an alerting service constitutes an important safety feature of a flight plan).

Today’s current border security concerns should also be a consideration. We, as aviators and responsible citizens, should do our part in maintaining the freedoms we enjoy between the two countries by providing necessary information and applying the proper procedures to ensure the efficiency of the seamless system that we sometimes take for granted. Tying up SAR, flight service station specialists, controllers and both FAA and Transport Canada inspectors unnecessarily is a cost we should consider before planning our next trip. Do the research and plan well. Proper planning is well worth it, and everyone benefits!

Preventing Ramp and Ground Accidents
by Tony Pringle. Tony has worked as an aviation safety officer for several Canadian carriers. He is a current airline transport pilot, safety
consultant and writer, based in Hong Kong.

Aviation safety has improved dramatically over the past decades. At the beginning of the jet era, around 1960, the worldwide commercial jet fleet suffered over 2.6 accidents per million departures annually. This number has now dropped down to 1.3 accidents per million departures annually worldwide (the U.S. and Canadian accident rates are only about 0.5 accidents per million departures). Still, the annual value of all damaged equipment in commercial and general aviation has increased in the past few decades. Why has this been the case, if the number of aircraft accidents has steadily declined? The reason is because most accidents happen on the ground, not in the air, according to the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF).

Industry costs
In 2000, the Airports Council International (ACI) reported that US$3 billion in losses were caused by airport ground vehicles hitting aircraft, each other, and other unforgiving objects around the airport. In early 2003, the FSF estimated that worldwide airline industry losses from ramp accidents had ballooned to US$5 billion! John Goglia, an outspoken former board member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has postulated that the best investment that major airlines could make to improve their chronic lack of profitability is to significantly reduce ramp accidents.

Direct costs are those related to the cost of actually repairing the damage to equipment and property. Indirect costs include lost revenue, lost work time, disruption of flight schedule, and negative customer reaction to accidents. The direct cost of property damage and personal injury are much more obvious than the indirect costs that are related to each incident, but the FSF has calculated that the indirect cost typically reaches four times the value of the initial direct costs.

Potential for injury
The costs of ramp damage are high even on a global scale, but much worse, is the potential for serious injury or loss of life.

The aircraft flight line is a high-risk area. It is full of high-energy sources that can produce a disaster if not respected and controlled. These sources include propellers, prop-wash, fuels, chemicals, electricity, ground vehicles, and combinations thereof. In most operations, ramp personnel need to deal with low wings and protuberances such as sharp static wicks, blade antennas, pointy Pitot tubes, long propeller blades, and strakes. They do so in a noisy environment, in all weather and light conditions, in day and night. They are under pressure to complete often physically-demanding tasks within a tight time frame, often with limited communication with other groups involved in ramp operations, such as pilots, fuel handlers, customer service agents, etc. In the airline industry, we often categorize accidents as “flight” or “ground.” Those that occur in the air are well-reported and investigated, while those that occur on the ground are seldom reported outside of the company, unless they involve serious injury or death. They may or may not be investigated, and are often just assumed to be a “cost of doing business.” Accidents that happen on the ground are interestingly not considered to be part of aviation safety, but industrial accidents. Data for such incidents is often difficult to obtain and, in many cases, staff involved in such situations are not airline employees, but work for airports or contractors.

However, the data that does exist paints a regrettable picture. In fact, when compared to other industries, the scheduled air transport industry is not doing well in terms of safety incidents. Consider U.S. industrial safety statistics: in 1998, the lost-workday incidence rate per 100 employees showed an average of 1.9 across all industries. The corresponding numbers were 3.2 for the construction industry, considered to be a high-risk workplace, and a staggering 8.2 for the scheduled air transport sector (see table, below). Recently released U.S. data for 2004 shows a rate of 8.0 lost workdays per 100 employees. Thus, in the past eight years, even though the aviation industry has seen large increases in productivity, the advent of new technology aircraft, and new airlines, there has been absolutely no significant improvement in injury rates!

Incidence of Non-Fatal Occupational Injuries by Industry - Number of Injuries per 100 Full-Time Workers (Lost Workday Cases with Days Away From Work) All Industry 1.9, Finance, Insurance, Real Estate 0.5, Mining 2.1, Manufacturing 2.1, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing 3.1, Transportation - All 3.1, Scheduled Airline Transportaion 8.2
Source: U.S. Department of Labor Statistics

Dupont, a chemical company often cited as a leader in workplace safety despite the risks associated with chemical manufacturing, manages a low 0.03 rate of lost-workday incidents per 100 employees, by using a comprehensive safety management program (see its principles of industrial safety).

The FSF has long recognized that flight safety is not just a matter of safe flight, but also involves safe ground operations by aircraft, ground vehicles and the people who operate them. In other words, flight safety begins on the ground. An airline that has procedures and a culture in place to eliminate incidents, and accidents on the ground can go a long way towards eliminating them in the air.

Similarly to flight accidents, analysis of ground aircraft accidents by the FSF has shown that they are almost always the result of a chain of events, which more often than not, is influenced by human errors. These human errors are not just those committed by the line person who makes mistakes that lead to an accident. They can also include failures caused by the organizational outlook of a company, including improper training and providing inappropriate facilities, equipment and other resources.

One way of dealing with human errors is to implement standard operating procedures (SOP), similar to those in place for flight crew. Once safe procedures have been identified, they must be followed with discipline, for every flight, every day.

Dupont Corp.'s Principles for Industrial Safety 1. All accidents, injuries and occupational are illness avoidable. 2. Management is directly responsible for the avoidance of injuries and illnesses. 3. Adhering to safety regulations is a basic requirement of the labour-management relationship. 4. Avoidance of injuries and preventive health care increase business success. 5. Safety during free time is as important as safety in the workplace. 6. The critical factor for success of a safety program is the person. 7. Training is an important element of safety in the workplace. 8. Safety inspections must be carried out. 9. All safety defects must be prevented or immediately eliminated. 10. All unsafe acts and incidents must be investigated.

However, safety on the ramp must go beyond the adherence to SOPs. It needs to be part of the operating culture. Workers need to know that they will not be ridiculed or blamed for raising safety issues.

This concept should be highlighted in the safety policy statement, which requires employees to work according to their respective procedures, report all incidents, and guarantees that they will not be disciplined for raising safety concerns.

Ground staff need to be strongly encouraged to contact their managers and/or a safety committee with any concerns they may have.

Disturbingly, most operators have, at some time, experienced aircraft damage that had gone unreported, and that was only discovered on pre-flight checks. These events cause significant financial losses to the organizations, unacceptable operational inconvenience for passengers and crews, but more importantly, a threat to aviation safety. An effective safety management system (SMS) will include a detailed and comprehensive ramp safety program, which, if understood and applied by all, will ensure proper reporting and prevent ramp incidents and accidents.

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