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Friendly Skies, Unfriendly Soil: International Flight Routing and Safety in Canada

December 27, 2009
airport security in denver

Long lines due to airport security. CC-licensed photo courtesy Flickr user 'alist'.

After the recent botched bombing by a Nigerian national on a Detroit bound flight, Canadian and U.S. airports and airlines have announced new security procedures.  Among these new rules, passengers on international flights will not be permitted to leave their seats in the final hour of a flight (including no bathroom breaks) nor use electronic devices or have anything on their lap.

Now, wait a minute.  Belted down for 90 minutes?  No bathroom breaks? No electronic devices or anything on our laps?  As in, no laptops, or books, or even a magazines?  Isn’t this a bit… silly?  Of course, the debate as to whether these “new” security measures are warranted– or do anything at all in terms of added security–  will likely be joined by pundits and voices not just in Canada, but abroad too, in the coming days.  Good.  While it’s true that authorities need, at least, to show they are responding to heightened security concerns,  I tend to see some wisdom in the words of Kevin Drum, who calls the new measures “Security Madness”.

But in terms of air safety and Canada’s role in dealing with the foiled bombing itself, this story in The Star also caught my eye.  Apparently, while the flight was bound for Detroit– and the would-be bomber was allegedly given “orders” (by al-Qaeda) to detonate the bomb “over American soil”, the drama in the last hour of the flight played out not over American soil, but Canadian.   In fact, as the Star piece notes, not only was the final hour of the transatlantic flight routed through Canadian skies, but “Flight 253’s route was almost exclusively in Canada” after it crossed the Atlantic.

Now, that isn’t, by itself, a big deal.  But on a closer look, there are other concerns .

What does seem problematic, as the piece also notes, is that very few airports in “Southwestern Ontario” are suited for landing the huge Airbus A330, which is used on such transatlantic flights.  In fact, the story implies that possibly only Toronto would do (London is mentioned as a “maybe” which does not quite do it as a safety standard).  And if  “few” airports in Southwestern Ontario are not suited, you can bet that even fewer in Quebec, or Atlantic Canada, would also work.

Isn’t this a safety concern?  If international flights like 253 are routed almost “exclusively” in Canadian airspace after crossing the Atlantic, shouldn’t there be more airports in Ontario and Eastern Canada equipped and capable to land these big planes in cases of emergency or security threat? The  story notes that Transport Canada “declined to comment” on the matter, which does not seem good enough.

The Star has raised these issues by implication.  Maybe it’s time to ask the Federal Government more direct and tough questions on this point.  Given the amount of money charged to consumers for “airport improvements” every year, you would think that such safety improvements would be a top priority, not just for Canadians but for internationals flying through Canada’s “friendly” skies.

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