JFK airport had 2 separate plane scares in the span of a week. What happened?


On Friday, Jan. 13, an American Airlines plane came within a thousand feet of striking a Delta flight headed for the Dominican Republic on the runway. Five days later, a JetBlue plane struck the tail of another parked plane as it was pushing back from the gate. No passengers in either incident were injured.

To better understand what happened, we reached out to Jeff Guzzetti, who spent 35 years in aviation safety. He was a National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator for 18 years, and a Federal Aviation Administration safety manager. He joined WNYC’s Sean Carlson on “All Things Considered” to explain the incidents and shed light on what happens next. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Sean: Hey, Jeff, welcome to “All Things Considered.”

Jeff: Good afternoon, Sean.

A preliminary review has suggested that the first incident was because a pilot misunderstood directions from air traffic controllers. How often does that kind of thing happen?

It doesn’t happen very often. So what happened was: a Delta 737 was taking off and had to reject its takeoff at about 104 knots, traveling down the runway, because an American Airlines, Boeing 777, crossed the runway in front of them. Fortunately, the controller spotted the conflict and told the Delta 737 to stop, which he did, but there was only about a thousand feet apart when they stopped.

And the NTSB has just initiated an investigation. But when you listen to the air traffic control transcripts and look at where they were in respect to each other, it appears the American 777 crew took a wrong turn when maneuvering with a bunch of multiple intersections where active runways cross each other. So they were given proper taxi instructions – but they were supposed to take off behind the Delta 737 – but instead they cut across the active runway after takeoff clearance was given by air traffic. Fortunately, the controller and the crew recognized it and stopped.

What’s the difference between the two collisions, safety-wise?

The next event that happened a few days later was really not even close to the seriousness of the Delta-American event. This is just a JetBlue airplane that’s on the ramp. It’s not even on the taxiway, it’s not on the active runway. During pushback, it struck a parked aircraft. That happens much more frequently. So it certainly causes damage for the airlines, but the NTSB doesn’t investigate those. However, the FAA will look at the airline and see if there isn’t a trend with those types of events, which could foresee a bigger safety problem. But in of itself it’s very minor.

What kind of safety checks do airlines put in place to avoid this kind of thing? Do they generally have to do with human error?

No, I wouldn’t say that. When it comes down to the most serious categories of runway incursions, it’s usually about 33%, the culpability is mostly on the crew, and 66% is on the culpability of the air traffic controller providing an incorrect marker.

But again, these are very, very few events that have occurred over the past few years. There’s a lot of safety checks. In fact, the FAA should be lauded for bringing down the number of incursions over the past few years. A lot of technology is being used, pilots are supposed to receive training to be able to fully understand runway signage and lights that tell them to stop before a runway.

There’s a lot of redundancy in the system. You’ve got two pilots aboard each airplane. You’ve got a controller in the tower with a supervisor overlooking his or her shoulder. You’ve got technology to be the first line of mitigation in case the pilots don’t see, or don’t follow, an order, or are given an incorrect order. Even in this case, I would call the Delta 737 near collision a success because it stopped a thousand feet apart.

What is the term “runway incursion?” What exactly are we referring to?

Basically, it’s an occurrence at an airport involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, a vehicle, or a person on the protected area of any surface designated for the landing and taking off of an aircraft. It’s further defined – to collect data – on whether it was a category A, B, C or D. A category A is a serious incident in which a collision was narrowly avoided, and that’s what happened at JFK in the first event. Those types of events occur with general aviation, small airplanes, as well as airliners, but very rarely with airliners. One or two a year maybe.

And then there’s a category B. It’s defined as a significant potential for collision, not narrowly avoided, but significant potential. And there’s, again, a handful of those also.

The FAA and the airlines take all this data and determine if there’s any trends at certain airports or with certain airlines at certain times of the day or night and certain weather.

How much of either incident – if any at all – has to do with the airline work shortages of both pilots and air traffic controllers?

Boy, that’s a tough question to ask. I don’t think you can make a correlation between runway incursions and the pilots being overworked in history. There might have been some runway incursions in which the crew could have been fatigued, but I couldn’t even speculate on what effect that would have. I don’t think, frankly, it would be significant.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that they’re investigating the first incident. Do you remember a time that something like this happened at JFK or maybe at another airport?

Oh, yes. When I was with the NTSB, the Air Traffic Control Investigation Division wrote several in-depth reports. The last fatal accident involving a collision was way back in 1994, I think. So it’s been a while, but when they happen this close, the NTSB takes over the investigation. The FAA is still always a party to the investigation and they will deep dive and interview the controllers, interview the flight crew, look at the flight data recorder, and try to suck out the lessons learned and perhaps even make recommendations to the FAA to further improve runway incursion mitigations.

The FAA also participates and they have a separate investigation where they look into the quality of the airline pilot training and whether or not the flight crew followed the proper procedures. And if not, why not? And they could take regulatory action. But that’s totally separate from the safety investigation.

Can you give us kind of a sense of how long these investigations tend to last?

No, typically it’s about a year to a year and a half for an investigation like this to run its course and to make sure you’ve chased down every level of potential aspects. So it’s about a year and a half before and any time during that time, the NTSB could issue a safety recommendation and they can issue it from Day One of the incident or Day 365.

Jeff Guzzetti has spent 35 years in aviation safety and was a former National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us.


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