The Federal Aviation Administration said it’s investigating “a close call” between a private jet and a commercial JetBlue flight that narrowly avoided colliding on a runway at Boston Logan International Airport on Monday evening.
According to a preliminary statement from the FAA, the incident took place when the pilot of a Learjet 60 operated by Hop-A-Jet, a private charter company, “took off without clearance while JetBlue Flight 206 was preparing to land on an intersecting runway.”
“An air traffic controller instructed the pilot of the Learjet to line up and wait on Runway 9 while the JetBlue Embraer 190 landed on Runway 4-Right, which intersects Runway 9. The Learjet pilot read back the instructions clearly but began a takeoff roll instead,” the statement said.
The pilot of the JetBlue flight “took evasive action and initiated a climb-out as the Learjet crossed the intersection.”
According to a preliminary review of the data by Flightradar24, “the closest the two aircraft came was approximately 565 feet,” and the Learjet “cleared the intersection of the two runways seconds before” the JetBlue flight. The Learjet continued on to its destination, landing in Florida two hours and 50 minutes after the incident, while the JetBlue flight “conducted a go-around and landed safely 11 minutes after the incident.”
On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that they would also be investigating, making it the fifth close call on a runway that the agency has looked into this year. Other near-misses have occurred in Honolulu; Austin, Texas; and at the JFK International Airport in New York.
Yahoo News spoke with Michael J. McCormick, a former FAA official and assistant professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, to better understand what went wrong and how mishaps like this can be avoided. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe exactly what happened at the Boston airport on Monday?
“Boston Logan International Airport, like many of the United States airports that were built before World War II, is constrained or landlocked in its ability to grow as an airport. Therefore, it has a very small footprint and the runways all intersect, meaning that in order to take off or land on those runways, you’re going to cross the path of another runway," McCormick said.
“In this instance, there was one aircraft that was landing on an intersecting runway, and there was another aircraft that was told to line up and wait, which is a procedure where the aircraft goes out onto the runway and waits for takeoff. Unfortunately, the Learjet, which is a chartered Learjet, went out on the runway and started its departure just as JetBlue was coming in to land on the intersecting runway. JetBlue recognized the conflict and executed what’s known as a ‘missed approach’ in order to avoid any problems with the other aircraft.
“So this is a case where we have a human error involved in that cockpit. And this is where the NTSB needs to take an in-depth look at the human factors involved and what was going on in the cockpit at the time of the event that would contribute to an error like this."
This is the fifth time this year that commercial aircraft have been involved in a near collision on a runway. Why does this keep happening?
“Runway collisions are one of the most significant accidents that can occur in aviation. Therefore, the FAA closely monitors what’s known as ‘runway incursions,’ where a vehicle, an aircraft or a pedestrian can go out on a runway when they’re not supposed to be there," McCormick said.
“There have not been a significant number of increases in runway incursions. In fact, this year the numbers of runway incursions are lower than they were last year. What we’re experiencing is more tracking of these types of events, so we know when they're occurring and they garner a lot more attention as a result. Websites such as FlightAware and Flightradar24 are providing real-time analysis of data, then they’re sharing that data with the public. And that’s how we gain greater awareness of what’s occurring.”
We’ve also witnessed the recent failure of a computer system that grounded flights nationwide. Why does commercial air travel seem to be such a mess right now?
“What we saw during the holidays, and even going into last summer, is that due to staffing shortfalls and equipment shortfalls post-pandemic, the airlines are no longer as resilient as they were. That means that when something happens, such as bad weather or a thunderstorm or snowfall, it causes such a disturbance in the individual airline’s system that they don’t have the flexibility in staffing and in equipment to recover from that. So that means that they’re struggling to keep up with the post-pandemic demand for air travel,” McCormick said.
“The outage of the computer system Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAMs, was due to an error on the part of a contractor performing routine maintenance during the midnight shift. And the FAA normally schedules this type of maintenance on a midnight shift so the impact can be minimized. Unfortunately, in this case, the contractor made a duplicate error on the backup system, and the backup system also did not work, which required what’s known as a “cold start” in order to restore the entire database, which took about two hours. And to ensure the highest level of safety, all air traffic was stopped on the ground until the system was clearly up and running.”
What needs to change so that close calls on the runway can be avoided?
“I think the first and most important change that needs to happen is the FAA needs permanent leadership. They currently have an acting administrator, who’s doing a good job, but an acting administrator does not have the ability to establish and set a vision and long-term priorities in terms of infrastructure investment and investment in systems that can help prevent and alert controllers when things like this happen,” McCormick said.
“The second thing is that the FAA needs a reliable and secure funding stream. For the past several years, the FAA has had to suffer through numerous occasions where funding was cut off due to budget impasses. And as a result, upgrades to systems and system software could not take place — they had to stop and then restart, stop and then restart. So I think those two crucial aspects will help ensure the integrity and the safety of the National Airspace System.
“And of course, airlines need to adjust their schedules in order to try to meet the demand that’s taking place and not overschedule and work beyond their ability to handle any disturbances that occur within their airline systems.”
Should airline passengers think twice about booking their next flight?
“One of the things that the United States is privileged to enjoy is the safest air transportation system in the world. And air transportation is by far, by orders of thousands, safer than other forms of transportation in the United States,” McCormick said. “There has not been anything that would lead me to believe that there’s been any decrease in the integrity of the safety of that system, and I would be very comfortable traveling myself and traveling with my family.”