Uncomfortably Close

At approximately 20:45 EST on the evening of 13 January 2023, a Boeing 777-200 operating as American Airlines flight 106 from New York (JFK) to London Heathrow (LHR) came perilously close to colliding with a Boeing 737-900 operating as Delta Air Lines flight 1943 from New York (JFK) to Las Américas International Airport (SDQ) in the Dominican Republic.

The American Airlines aircraft appears to have attempted to depart from a runway other than that which it was assigned by Air Traffic Control (ATC). Specifically, American 106 was directed to depart JFK’s Runway 4L, but held short of Runway 31L, inadvertently crossing in front of Delta 1943.

Here follows a transcript of salient pilot/controller radio transmissions:

JFK ATC: “Sh#t! Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance! Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance!”

Delta 1943: “Rejecting.”

JFK ATC: “Alright, whew, Delta 1943. 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.”

Alertness on the controller’s part and the Delta air-crew’s excellent airmanship and solid training saw the 737 come to a controlled and linear stop within approximately three-hundred-meters of the American 777.

Against a backdrop of glowing-hot brake pads, down-spooling turbofan engines, and thundering hearts, air traffic control addressed American 106:

American 106: “The last clearance we were given, we were cleared to cross is that correct?”

JFK ATC: “American 106 Heavy, we’re departing runway four left, I guess we’ll listen to the tapes but you’re supposed to depart runway four left, you’re currently holding short of runway three-one left.”

Brian Heale, a passenger aboard Delta 1943, reported the 737 had accelerated for a span of “two or three seconds” prior to the commencement of aggressive braking. Mr. Heale noted astonishment on the parts of his fellow passengers, many of whom gasped or fell abjectly silent in the tense moments before the aircraft’s captain announced he’d been directed by air traffic control to abort the take-off.

“There was this abrupt jerk of the plane,” Heale recounted, “and everyone was sort of thrust forward from the waist. There was an audible reaction when the brakes happened, like a gasp. And then there was a total silence for a couple of seconds.”

Faced with flight-crew duty-time limitations occasioned by the narrowly-averted disaster and its aftermath, Delta 1943 returned to the gate and deplaned its 145 passengers, the entirety of which were conveyed to and put up in local hotels at Delta’s expense. The flight departed the following morning and proceeded to Santo Domingo without incident.

In a news release, Delta stated: “The safety of our customers and crew is always Delta’s number one priority … Delta will work with and assist the NTSB on a full review of flight 1943 on January 13 regarding an aborted takeoff procedure at New York-JFK.” The statement continued: “We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and delay of their travels.”

Former US Department of Transportation inspector general Mary Schiavo (who loves getting in the media spotlight)  set forth: “There are about twenty of these most serious categories A and B every year, but the more disturbing statistic is that runway incursions—in other words, two planes on a runway or taxiway when they aren’t supposed to intersect have the risk of intersecting—is that has been up [sic] 92-percent from 2011 until 2018.”

Ms. Schiavo blathered on: “So this is a huge issue with the government, with the FAA, and with my old office, the Office of Inspector General, because this is one statistic that’s on the rise and it’s not a statistic you want to see rise.”

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on 16 January that it would investigate the JFK incident. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) decreed likewise.

The 15 January 2023 American/Delta debacle bears uncanny and unsettling similarity to 1977’s infamous Tenerife Airport Disaster, in which two Boeing 747 passenger jets collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport [TFN]) on the Spanish island of Tenerife. The tragedy occurred when KLM Flight 4805 initiated its takeoff roll while Pan Am Flight 1736 was still on the TFN runway. The impact and resulting fire killed everyone aboard KLM 4805 and all but 61 of Pan Am 1736’s occupants. In all, the calamity claimed 583 lives, and remains to this day the deadliest accident in aviation history.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov