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Concorde Ruling: A timely reminder of runway risks

Posted: 26 January 2011 | Phil McLachlan, MD QinetiQ Airport Technologies | No comments yet

National headlines for the aviation industry in December 2010 were mostly about snow, closed airports and angry passengers. But amidst the acres of newsprint on the weather and stranded travellers was a court ruling that could actually have much greater implications for the future of the industry and for air travel.

A French court ruled that Continental Airlines was responsible for the tragic Concorde crash in Paris in 2000 because of a FOD (Foreign Object Debris) incident in which a strip of metal on the runway caused fatal damage to the aircraft.

Continental will have to reimburse Air France the compensation it paid to victims’ families and faces the possibility of a major class action suit that could cost hundreds of millions.

National headlines for the aviation industry in December 2010 were mostly about snow, closed airports and angry passengers. But amidst the acres of newsprint on the weather and stranded travellers was a court ruling that could actually have much greater implications for the future of the industry and for air travel.

A French court ruled that Continental Airlines was responsible for the tragic Concorde crash in Paris in 2000 because of a FOD (Foreign Object Debris) incident in which a strip of metal on the runway caused fatal damage to the aircraft.

Continental will have to reimburse Air France the compensation it paid to victims’ families and faces the possibility of a major class action suit that could cost hundreds of millions.

As the level of air traffic increases globally, so too must safety standards applied at international airports. Aviation safety, while always a priority, will now demand millions of Euros more investment in the immediate term.

The good news for airports and airlines struggling in a difficult economic climate is that investment now in the latest safety systems can also help safeguard capacity and could lead to long significant term cost savings.

The Paris ruling

With the result of the Paris trial in December 2010, the risks associated with air travel are again at the forefront of public consciousness.

The Concorde flight was a victim of a FOD runway incident after a strip of titanium, no larger than a school ruler, lay undetected on the runway. This strip burst Concorde’s rear tyres, fragments of which subsequently punctured the aircraft’s fuel tank causing a catastrophic explosion. 113 people died in the tragedy.

The strip of titanium was found to have fallen from a Continental aircraft. French air officials and the French national carrier were acquitted while the court fined Continental €200,000 (£169,000) and handed a 15-month suspended prison sentence for “involuntary manslaughter” to the Continental mechanic who had fitted the strip.

From a safety perspective, the trial has re-ignited industry concerns over runway debris. Since the incident 10 years ago, the understanding of FOD risks, the cost of FOD damage, and also the tools at an airport’s disposal to combat it have all advanced significantly.

The high incidence of Foreign Object Debris (FOD) on runways

Several studies over the past two years have shown that FOD incidents are much more common than many in the industry realise. Whilst, thankfully, runway debris rarely cause fatal accidents, the studies have now managed to quantify the economic cost of overall FOD damage to a far higher degree than has been previously possible..

Work carried out by the Insight SRI consultancy revealed that for every 10,000 aircraft movements, airlines runway debris damage costs are USD $263,000.

This equates to direct debris costs at the 300 largest airports totalling nearly USD $1.1 billion. This excludes indirect costs – delays, plane changes, fuel inefficiencies which, when included, bring the actual cost up to USD $12 billion per annum.

The main direct costs to airlines caused by runway debris are engine and tyre damage.

The frequency of engine damage is revealed by data provided anonymously by a US commercial airline, which detailed 117 engine events at a single US airport over a 12 month period.

Due to these incidents 65 blade pairs had to be replaced and 80 blades blended (repaired). Basic blending of blades requires an aircraft being taken out of service for 8-12 hours. In addition, the cost of blending a single blade is between USD $4,000-$5,000.

At one US airport over a 12 month period, a major US carrier recorded punctures and tyre tears due to FOD necessitating 158 tyre replacements. The average cost of a tyre is USD $ 3,261.

Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration documented 7,516 wildlife strikes involving US civil aircraft in 2008 alone. The vast majority of these strikes involved birds with 72% of strikes occurring at or below 500 feet. Since 1988, strikes have resulted in the deaths of 229 people.

The current method of detecting foreign objects involves airport staff driving the runway typically four times a day, attempting to spot risks with the naked eye. This is a challenging task which risks FOD being on the runway for up to six hours until the next inspection. The ongoing level of FOD damage suggests it is far from 100% effective.

FOD solutions

The increased understanding of the scale of the FOD problem has in part been made possible by the advent of new surveillance systems for the continuous monitoring of runway surfaces. These systems, for the first time, give a complete and real-time picture of debris items on runways. They also provide the key element of a new and more proactive way of managing the FOD risk, giving the exact location of debris items and enabling rapid removal at any point through the operational day, not just at the four point inspections.

QinetiQ Airport Technologies’ automatic FOD detection system Tarsier is an example of one such product. Tarsier uses a combination of millimetre wave radar, digital signal processing and high-resolution cameras to scan and detect FOD and wildlife on runway areas.

When an object is detected, Tarsier records its GPS location and alerts airport staff. This essentially gives the airport continuous runway inspections, something which would be impossible to achieve visually.

The Tarsier system is in place at a number of international airports, including Heathrow. As Neil Pritchard, Heathrow’s Airside Operations Manager, puts it: “We have been working together since the system’s introduction and trust QinetiQ to support the installation and help us realise the full value of the investment… for the travelling public, the biggest benefit will come when this kind of safety equipment is ubiquitous, reducing risk at every airport. Right now, however, Heathrow is proud to be leading the way.”

The system is also deployed at Vancouver, Dubai and Doha International airports. In Vancouver, the system has detected items such as a 12m metal grounding wire, which airport staff believe had the potential to cause a major incident.

Director of Airside Operations at Vancouver Brett Patterson said, “snatched up by an aircraft propeller or sucked into an airliner’s low-slung jet engine – this could have spelled disaster. Recovering this cable virtually paid for our system.”

The way ahead

Awareness of potential threats to safety and counteracting these threats as effectively as possible is an obligation for the aviation industry. The safety of passengers and crew is always the number one priority of airports and airlines.

As the level of air traffic increases globally, so too must safety standards applied at international airports. Where appropriate technologies exist that can significantly improve safety levels at airports, they merit careful consideration by all those responsible for passenger safety.

However, investment decisions are always helped where there is a clear financial payback, and the latest thinking shows that tackling FOD on runways plays to both the safety and economic agenda.

In the US, additional incentives are now being made available to encourage the adoption of FOD detection technology. On 28th December 2010 the US authorities announced that two specific FOD detection systems – QinetiQ’s Tarsier and the FOD Finder system from Trex Aviation – were now formally eligible for federal funding under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Programme. The US authorities hope this will lead to a broad uptake of the technology, which will bring to US aviation the high level network benefits of reduced cost, operational efficiency and of course increased safety.

Whilst such central government funding is not the norm in Europe, the Concorde ruling stands as a salutary reminder of the ultimate risk posed by FOD. This, coupled with the economic benefits of automatic detection and the successful implementation of systems on some of the world’s busiest runways, suggests the opportunity is there for airports to take a major step in improving both risk and cost management.

About the Author

Phil McLachlan is the Managing Director of QinetiQ Airport Technologies where he is responsible for taking QinetiQ’s defence and security technology into the airport market worldwide. Prior to joining QinetiQ in 2007, Phil worked for seven years in the consulting industry with Accenture where he was responsible for the Aerospace and Defence industry team. Prior to his business career, Phil was an engineer officer in the Royal Air Force specialising in communications and Control Systems.

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