Northern Ontario Airports Transition to Digital Safety Management System

Northern Ontario Airports Transition to Digital Safety Management System
Kristin V. Shaw
Published in: 

A network of nearly 30 remote airports in Northern Ontario recently took a giant step into the digital age by transitioning from paper records and fax communications to a web-based safety management system (SMS). The electronic switch is significant, as most of the airports serve First Nations and Indigenous communities that lack year-round road access to the rest of the province. 

“We take pride in running a very safe fleet, which is why we wanted to make enhancements for even better, safer airports,” says Bruce Caldwell, manager of the Remote Northern Transportation Office (RNTO) for Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation. 

The digital upgrade occurred at all 29 airports operated by the RNTO—28 commercial facilities and one aerodrome for charter service. The new electronic SMS program establishes one data and tracking system for incident reports, runway conditions, wildlife tracking and routine operational information. 


Project: Digital Safety Management System 

Location: Northern Ontario, Canada 

Airports: 28 commercial airports; 1 aerodrome for charter service

Method: Web-based app

Development & Design: Veoci

Timeline: Bid request issued July 2017; system operational spring 2019

Key Benefits: Faster, more efficient recordkeeping & reporting; enhanced safety; actionable data

“Implementing a digital system meant we could streamline paperwork processing and data analysis,” explains Caldwell. “We wanted to get to the point to where we could see trends in the data, study what it was telling us, and enhance our compliance.”

Vendor Selection

In July 2017, the Ministry of Transportation requested for bids on systems that would enable RNTO personnel to perform all tasks related to recording, monitoring, analyzing and reporting about safety at their airports. Capabilities needed to include recording and investigating safety-related occurrences, inspections, audits, and tracking corrective actions in response to safety-related findings.

The system in place at the time of the bid was entirely paper based, and airport staff faxed it to the RNTO central office in Thunder Bay, where it was logged into spreadsheets. The goal of the bid request was to enhance airport compliance through digital tracking.

Using the competitive tendering process, the Ministry selected Veoci as the winning bidder. The evaluation included technical and financial reviews, and RNTO staff assessed software functionality during onsite demos. Caldwell notes that the flexibility of Veoci’s system was particularly appealing on two fronts: It could be adapted for a number of uses; and it could work in a multi-airport environment.

“If I were running one airport, that would be enough of an undertaking; but we have 29,” he says. “We found the administrative burden of [SMS] on paper was enormous. And the paperwork didn’t necessarily allow us to extract the best value and data. Also, our main mode of communication was fax. For our remote airports, a phone line was our main communication; we wanted to modernize and streamline that.”

Enhancing the Lifeline

The Ontario Airport System is Canada’s largest airport network, stretching from the Manitoba border on the west to the border with Quebec on the east. Its northernmost facility is Fort Severn Airport (YER) on Hudson Bay, more than 1,000 miles from RNTO headquarters. 

Scores of Indigenous peoples living in Northern Ontario count on airports for access to goods and services from across the province and around the world. Winter ice roads link First Nations and cities together, but the 29 system airports that dot the map provide other critical, year-round connections. With some of the original trading posts in the New World from the 1600s, the region has a long history of person-to-person commerce. 

“This project highlights the importance of humans,” says Swaraj Kler, solutions manager for Veoci. “The airports are their lifeline, and they serve the local society. The airports have been well taken care of because they’re so critical.”

Northern Ontario’s network of remote airports support passenger, cargo and turboprop charter airlines such as Northstar Air, Thunder Airlines, Wasaya, Air Creebec, Perimeter and Air Bravo. In addition to providing critical transportation during medical, police and evacuation emergencies, they facilitate the delivery of everyday food, supplies, fuel, freight and equipment during the majority of the year, when roads are not available. (Typically, the winter ice roads are only open from about mid-January to mid-March.) 

Easing the Transition

Kler has been working with RNTO staff for the last year and a half to train personnel throughout the airport system—some with limited computer experience. 

“Transitioning from paper to digital is a common problem,” she notes. “It’s a relatively slow conversion, and it was part of our charter to help the staff quell their fears about new technology and help them understand they couldn’t break anything in the process of learning it.”

To address concerns about the potential travel costs of providing onsite training at so many airports, RNTO teamed with Veoci to create a phased approach and arranged a few whirlwind sessions to kick things off. 

“It’s going even better than we anticipated,” reports Caldwell. “Our staff at the airports are using tablets, which are more like phones than computers. The adaptability has been beyond expectations.” 

Where possible, Kler and RNTO staff trained airport personnel themselves. In other cases, they trained airport personnel to share their training with peers in other locations. Veoci also sent Kler to provide on-site technical support when needed. After multiple touch points, she reports that airport teams are finding the app to be customizable and user-friendly. 

“You don’t have to be technically qualified to make changes to this system, like adding a field. Via dashboards, staff can configure data without requesting help,” explains Kler, noting that this capability will save RNTO money over the long term. 

Digital Champions Emerge

When moving from paper to computer, the airport teams discovered the value of mapping out their process flow before implementation. Caldwell says this thorough approach helps ensure that work flows through the organization effectively before embedding it in a software solution. Honing the workflow up front also saves steps during implementation.

One member of the RNTO staff took the initiative to create a series of how-to videos for the rest of the team, and the videos are now embedded in the software for easy access. 

“We have to remember that our remote staff is not only serving an Indigenous community; our staff are community members, too,” says Caldwell. “There could be cultural differences and language differences to which we must be sensitive, and that’s where video is very helpful.”  

So far, the staff doesn’t miss the era of paper-and-pen reporting. Some have even suggested more ways to digitize, as they find the new processes to be faster and simpler.  

“I was surprised and delighted that our staff took it up more quickly than we thought they might,” reflects Caldwell. “Natural champions have come out of the woodwork. One staff member with very little prior computer experience has become one of our all-stars.”

The new system’s portable tablets have greatly improved working conditions for airport staff reporting aircraft incidents, runway conditions and other safety/operational data. “Before implementing this app, a team member would have to stomp off their boots, take off their coat, and sit down to create a report and fax it over. Then, they would have to start that process over every couple of hours,” Caldwell explains. “When it’s -40 Celsius outdoors, they can record data from the warmth of their vehicle, which also improves the likelihood that the reports will come in promptly and be more relevant and current for air carriers.”

The new app has appreciably evolved SMS for airports throughout the system, says Kler. “They have a clear idea on how it has to be done and recorded,” she remarks. “The staff has been trained to report all incidents, and they are doing a great job. Even the smallest incident—if someone slips and falls at a facility, for instance—is reported on the app. It’s key to the goals of the RNTO.”

The new system is also providing more meaningful data, adds Caldwell. 

“The focus before this upgrade was on the data collected as a requirement,” he says. “Now, we’re able to trend it, plan action, and determine root cause analysis to address any operational concerns. We expect our staff to have more time for making improvements because reporting will be a by-product.”  


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