By Andrew Chen
Audio: Authorities Investigating Near-Miss at JFK
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating a close call at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport after a near-miss between two aircraft Friday evening.
At around 8:45 p.m., Delta Air Lines Flight 1943 was taking off from Runway 4L when an American Airlines jet crossed the same runway. Initial analysis shows that the American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER bound for London Heathrow had not been cleared to cross Runway 4L and was instead cleared to cross the intersecting Runway 31L. The Delta flight was bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and was being operated by a four-year old Boeing 737-900ER registered as N914DU.
Fortunately, an air traffic controller noticed the incident and a potential collision was avoided. The Delta aircraft rejected its takeoff run and stopped approximately 1,000 feet from where the American Airlines widebody jet had crossed.
The diagram below shows the paths of the two aircraft:
Recordings of the air traffic control transmissions help paint a picture of what occurred. The American Airlines flight, operated by a 22-year old Boeing 777-200ER registered as N754AN, was taxiing for departure and was cleared to cross Runway 31L at Taxiway Kilo, a move that would not have put it in the path of the departing Delta jet.
The Delta flight is then cleared for takeoff from Runway 4L. Approximately 20 seconds later, the following exchange occurs:
JFK Tower: Sh*t! Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance
JFK Tower: Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance
Delta 1943: Rejecting
Instead of crossing Runway 31L as cleared, the American flight crossed Runway 4L, into the takeoff path of the Delta 737.
Due to its size and traffic volume, the airport actually has two Tower frequencies. Meanwhile on the other Tower frequency, the controller instructs the American Airlines flight to stop, although it is unclear if the aircraft was on this frequency:
JFK Tower: American 106 heavy, American 106 heavy hold position
After rejecting the takeoff, the Delta pilot sounds relieved. The aircraft then taxis off the runway and asks for some time to complete checklists and make some phone calls:
Delta 1943: All right and uh…phew. Delta 1943
JFK Tower: Delta 1943, are you able to taxi or do you need a couple of minutes to run checks?
Delta 1943: Yeah we can get off the runway, Delta 1943
JFK Tower: Delta 1943, turn left Juliet…and um…just remain clear of Runway 4L.
The controller later speaks with the American Airlines flight:
JFK Tower: American 106 heavy, possible pilot deviation. I have a number for you, advise ready to copy.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website provides the following information on pilot deviations: “Ground deviations can happen while taxiing, taking off, or landing without clearance, deviating from an assigned taxi route, or failing to hold short of an assigned clearance limit.”
In this case, it appears that the American flight did not follow its assigned taxi route and instead crossed an active runway without clearance. When deviations occur, air traffic control will often give the pilots a phone number to call to discuss the matter.
After the number presumably being given, the conversation continues between the controller and the American pilots:
American 106: Tower, American 106 heavy
Tower: American 106 heavy
American 106: The last clearance we were given, we were cleared to uh cross, is that correct?
JFK Tower: American 106 heavy…we’re departing runway 4…um I guess we’ll listen to the tapes, but uh…you were supposed to depart Runway 4L. You’re currently holding short of uh 31L.
American 106: Roger American 106 heavy
See the video below for air traffic control recordings of the incident:
While many runway incursions do not result in any immediate safety consequences, they have occasionally led to deadly results.
The deadliest accident in aviation history occurred when two Boeing 747 aircraft collided at Los Rodeos Airport, now known as Tenerife North Airport in Tenerife, Spain. Amidst patches of fog at the airport, a KLM Boeing 747-200 started its takeoff run while a Pan Am Boeing 747-100 was taxiing on the same runway. The collision and subsequent fire killed 583 people, with 61 survivors from the Pan Am aircraft.
Incidents similar to what occurred on Friday also happen from time to time. In July 2018, A KLM Cityhopper Embraer E190 received take-off clearance while a KLM Boeing 737-800 was also cleared to line up and take off further down on the same runway at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The pilots of the Embraer E190 stopped their takeoff roll when when they heard that the Boeing 737 was also getting takeoff clearance.
The American flight ended up departing for London around an hour behind schedule. Meanwhile, the Delta flight was cancelled and rescheduled for the following morning.
At this point, the NTSB is conducting an investigation that will ultimately uncover the details on what happened. That being said, it appears clear that the Delta pilots were following their takeoff clearance while the American flight crossed the runway without proper clearance.
There are still questions that remained unanswered though. While this is no doubt a frightening incident, it is unclear whether the trajectories and positioning of the aircraft would actually have led to a collision had the takeoff not been aborted. It is possible that the Delta flight would have narrowly missed the American aircraft.
In addition, the airport is equipped with Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X) equipment. ASDE-X is a system that uses using radar, multilateration and satellite technology to help air traffic controllers track the movement of aircraft and vehicles on the ground. According to the FAA, the ASDE-X system has alarms that alert controllers of possible runway incursions or incidents. It is unclear whether this system played a role in this incident.