An incident that happened at New York John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) on Friday night could have ended in disaster, but fortunately that was narrowly avoided. I first wrote about this over the weekend, though there are now some more details about what happened (including a useful new animation), so I wanted to take a look at that.
American & Delta planes nearly collide
This incident happened at around 8:45PM ET on Friday, January 13, 2022. It involves American Airlines flight AA106, a Boeing 777-200ER that was scheduled to fly to London (LHR), and Delta Air Lines flight DL1943, a Boeing 737-900 that was scheduled to fly to Santo Domingo (SDQ). This story was first reported by @xJonNYC.
Long story short, the Delta 737 had been cleared for takeoff on runway 4L, and the American 777 crossed the runway at the same time. It’s only because the air traffic controller noticed this situation that potential disaster was avoided. VASAviation has the ATC audio, along with a useful illustration of what was happening.
Here’s part of the transcript between the air traffic controller and Delta pilot (you can hear the pilot’s voice trembling when he says “all right, whew”):
Air traffic controller: $hit! Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance. Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance.
Delta pilot: Rejecting.
Delta pilot: All right, whew, Delta 1943.
Air traffic controller: Delta 1943, are you able to taxi, or do you need a couple of minutes to run checks?
Delta pilot: Yeah we can get off the runway, Delta 1943.
Meanwhile following this, here’s part of the transcript between the air traffic controller and American pilot:
American pilot: The last clearance we were given, we were cleared to cross, is that correct?
Air traffic controller: American 106 heavy, we’re departing runway 4L, I guess we’ll listen to the tapes, but you were supposed to depart runway 4L, you’re currently holding short of runway 31L.
For what it’s worth, the American 777 flight still ended up departing for London, and arrived around 30 minutes behind schedule. Meanwhile the Delta 737 flight ended up being canceled and rescheduled for the next morning, and it arrived around 15 hours behind schedule.
It’s not clear what the reason for that Delta delay was — did the brakes need to cool off, did the pilots not feel comfortable flying, did the pilots time out, or…?).
How could an incident like this happen?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now investigating this incident. The initial information from the FAA suggests that the Delta jet stopped its takeoff roll roughly 1,000 feet short of the point where the American jet was crossing the runway, making this a pretty close call.
While we’ll have to wait for a full investigation, it’s pretty clear that the Delta pilots were following air traffic control instructions, and taking off from the correct runway. Meanwhile it would appear that the American pilots were taxiing to the wrong runway, which also caused them to cross the wrong runway.
The American 777 was also supposed to depart from runway 4L (the same runway the Delta jet was taking off from), but instead crossed that runway with plans to depart from runway 31L. The big question is how the pilots could make that mistake.
Fortunately we have the taxi clearance that the American pilots were given, and this puts the blame pretty squarely on them:
American pilot: Ground, American 106 heavy, TA for taxi.
Air traffic controller: 106 heavy, Kennedy ground, runway 4L, taxi left B, hold short of K.
American pilot: B, short of K, American 106.
Air traffic controller: American 106 heavy, cross runway 31L at K.
American pilot: Cross 31L at K, American 106 heavy.
With the first instructions, the pilots only partially repeated the instructions, and didn’t mention the runway. During the second set of instructions, the pilots read back the instructions clearly — they confirmed they could cross runway 31L, not that they could cross runway 4L.
How two experienced American Airlines pilots could make this mistake is kind of shocking. Even if they misinterpreted something (despite reading it back correctly), you’d think they’d have a general sense of the traffic pattern at the time, noticing that takeoffs were happening on runway 4L.
Kudos to the air traffic controller for catching the error so quickly, and to the Delta pilots for their quick response in rejecting takeoff. If this had been noticed a few seconds later, the outcome could have been totally different.
In fairness, based on the information we have so far, there’s no guarantee the planes would have collided. They may have still been separated by a very small margin. Regardless, this was way too close for comfort.
Disaster was narrowly averted at JFK on Friday night, after an American 777 bound for London crossed the runway while a Delta 737 bound for Santo Domingo was taking off. The American 777 seemed to be taxiing to the wrong runway, and as a result crossed an active runway that they didn’t have permission to cross. Fortunately the air traffic controller was vigilant and managed to prevent a catastrophe.
What do you make of this incident at JFK?