American Airlines Pilot Union Trying To Cover For Crew In New York Near-Disaster

On January 13, an American Airlines Boeing 777 headed to London taxied on the wrong runway as a Delta 737 began its take off roll. This was nearly a disaster of epic proportions, as the American jet crossed right in front of Delta, and the Delta plane hit the brakes.

The Delta flight stopped less than 1000 feet from where it would have intersected with American’s plane. The transatlantic 777 didn’t follow air traffic control instructions. It was told whom to call to report the incident, and half an hour later took off for Heathrow airport.

Given the potential calamity that was narrowly avoided, there’s a search for answers. How could that American plane have found itself taxiing on the wrong runway in front of another plane – that almost slammed into it? There’s also a lot of finger pointing.

It nearly caused a disaster. And now the Allied Pilots Association is running interference in the media. Ted Reed writes with the union narrative for Forbes.

  • The American Airlines pilots union has been saying they’ve been warning about safety because of new procedures they say they haven’t been trained on yet.

  • And Reed says the pilots continued to fly to London – a questionable move, given that they could have been easily shaken by the incident, and perhaps in no condition to fly, plus this likely overwrote the conversations around the incursion from the voice recorder – because they didn’t know the seriousness of what had happened. (They did not operate a flight back to the U.S. two days later, however.)

One Mile at a Time reports these narratives though correctly adds “this doesn’t address why the (experienced) captain taxied the plane to the wrong runway.” And that makes the rest of Ted Reed’s piece basically irrelevant.

The Ted Reed piece articulates the ‘cya’ pilots union narrative and a poor excuse for the incident.

  1. There is zero indication the ‘new procedures’ had anything to do with this incident. Notice that when the union promotes these as a problem they never specify the particulars, for instance the first officer announcing “flight attendants, prepare for takeoff” is not what caused this. (The union’s previous criticism of ‘changes in procedures’ have been about asking for supplemental in-person training in exchange for overtime pay.)

  2. There were 3 777 pilots on board, none of them noticed they were going the wrong way.

  3. The cockpit was informed of a “possible pilot deviation.” They spent half an hour on the ground after the incursion. If they still didn’t know what happened by then that is worse not better.

APA is pushing ‘everybody’s fault but the pilots’ narrative in TV appearances as well, but it does not hold.

Strong kudos are due both to the air traffic controller who called off the Delta 737 and to the pilots of that plane who managed to abort their takeoff and stop the aircraft before it crossed runway 31L where the Boeing widebody passed in front of it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Again unions, “it’s never our fault.” Pilots should be sh*t canned for almost going Tenerife 2.0

  2. Amen – unions had a place many years ago when there weren’t adequate wage and labor laws or OSHA but today they tend to suck money from their members, promote mediocrity and cover for poor employees. I realize there is a pilot shortage but these should be fired. That type of mistake is unforgivable and shouldn’t happen w all the checks and balances in place.

  3. The union legitimately raised concerns about doing all of the changes in procedures via individual study at home methods but now wants to throw a young pilot under the bus (wheels of the 777) now that it appears they were right?
    The real person that should be thrown under the bus is the captain that was not a newbie as well as who ever was sitting in the jumpseat.
    Not one of the two people besides the new 777 co-pilot realized what was wrong and the unions attempts to spin the narrative attempt to hide that fact.

  4. Of course we all know that if the situation was reversed, Delta incursion in front of AA, Tim Dunn would be sounding just like the union rep.

  5. From an error reduction point of view in a system, where you are trying to enculturate safety, it is problematic to call for people‘s heads when they commit a mistake. Certainly, there should be consequences, but terminating them, etc. may be an overreaction.

    Additionally, there are often multiple factors in play when these sorts of mistakes occur. Even at Tenerife, there was a problem where the radios were stepping on each other, and the pilots had no way of knowing that.

    All parties should wait until the investigation is done. That, also includes the pilots union.

  6. @Tim Dunn – there is absolutely no indication that any ‘changes in procedure’ had anything to do with this incident. There were 3 777 pilots in the cockpit. The captain was in command. This was a huge mistake that falls at the captain’s feet, and the rest is just whitewashing.

  7. These clowns narrowly avoided killing hundreds of people….actually, they didn’t avoid anything, the controller and the Delta crew did…..and they’re going to get a pass for their almost catastrophic negligence.

  8. Gary,
    you said exactly what I wrote.
    The fact that the union raised concerns about the new procedures BEFORE the incident is to be commended. Using it as an excuse for this screwup is somewhere on which you and I agree

  9. I’m stunned that the pilots were allowed to continue to London, since they couldn’t manage to correctly circle the tarmac. They should be suspended until a full investigation has been completed. Giving the ALPA the most benign of motivations, the optics of their stance are terrible at best. The union needs to back off and let the system work without interference.

  10. All I want to know is how the AA plane ended up on the wrong taxiway. It’s not as if they’re following GPS back when it first came out.


  11. It will be nearly impossible to get an accurate conclusion as to why this happened. Listening to the ATC tapes, the instructions to the flight crew was clear and correctly read back. However, if you’re not familiar with JFK, where they missed the taxiway is a jumbled mess.
    It’s possible there was something going on in the cockpit that distracted them. The CVR would let us know what was going on, but only the last two hours are recorded, so that recording is long gone so the NTSB will only have the testimony of the flight crew to go on.

  12. Christian,
    American’s pilots are represented by the Allied Pilots Association (APA), an independent union, and not ALPA (the Airline Pilots Association) which represents pilots at Delta and United as well as other airlines.

  13. The real question here is, why, can somebody explain to me, why was this aircraft allowed to takeoff and continue on a long distance journey to London. Where were the initial interviews, initial statements and debriefings of what just had happened. But above all, and the most important IMO, where is the dammed toxicology report. Why were these individuals not screened for such??There could lie a lot of answers to this case here, as to why?? Seems to me the urgency the Union is showing, combined with the fact that Isom hasn’t stepped forward and shown face, are the main ingredients to suspect a major coverup!!!

  14. If I saw two planes on a collision course, i.e. Tenerife 2.0, saying a profane word would’ve been the least of my concerns (roll eyes).

  15. ATC verbiage is highly regimented. That’s why e.g. the controller said cancel takeoff clearance, not plans. Even the choice of the word takeoff was deliberate. The international nature of ATC demands this level of detail, and obviously, curse words are not part of the lexicon. Anybody who posts stuff like “roll eyes” is an impolite and ill-bred person. You don’t need to agree with my position but there are tasteful and distasteful ways to disagree.

  16. Disgusted you are kidding me?!? I completely agree with J.J….incredible that you are concerned with profanity when there was a potential catastrophe avoided. [redacted -gl]

  17. The instructions from ground control from the beginning were clear and confirmed by the co-pilot. They missed the turn at KE and the second instruction as well. 4L was clearly the active runway. These pilots had their heads up their asses.

  18. While an expletive may not be SOP, in certain dire scenarios it will be guaranteed to gain a full and unquestioned immediate response. And it worked! Kudos to ATC & the Delta pilot. Glad to have you!

  19. @ Gary

    Hey, I was just thinking yesterday that we haven’ had a gratuitous union bashing piece of sensationalist dumb right wing trash baiting from Gary Leff for a few days now…and then…

    You claim that the union is “running interference in the media” and cite Ted Reed’s article as evidence of such.

    Now please provide the evidence you have, which can attribute the “source” of the quotes in that article to the Allied Pilots Association. If you can’t, your whole position (summarised in the title) cannot be verified by your readers: it is based upon specious claims and presumption. If you can verify, readers can be more confident about your “opinion” on the union’s role and accept your position.

    To note that the article states: “…the source, a pilot who has knowledge of the incident and who asked not to be named…”.

    Now we do know that the union had raised safety concerns about certain “training” earlier in the month. Do you perceive such concerns to be justified (e.g. that a 35 page bulletin can be regarded as as “training”?). Does your anti-union bias naturally tend to negate that position?

    You claim:

    “There is zero indication the ‘new procedures’ had anything to do with this incident.”

    Does that mean that you would excise from the incident investigation any consideration / analysis of new procedures and the efficacy of training such as a potential contributing factor in the incident ?!

    Similarly, would you excise from the incident investigation any consideration / analysis of the lack of hours in aircraft type of the FO as a potential contributing factor in the incident ?!

    You observe:

    “There were 3 777 pilots on board, none of them noticed they were going the wrong way.”

    It may be shown upon full investigation that they believed they were going the correct way (to 31L) and the questions become how did that perception that they expected to depart a different runway (to 4L) come about? The very first communication (initial taxiing route) sounded muffled to me (no idea what the sound quality was in real life). Was 31L a live runway at the time of initial push back / taxi (noting they did use that runway eventually for departure)?

    “The cockpit was informed of a “possible pilot deviation.” They spent half an hour on the ground after the incursion. If they still didn’t know what happened by then that is worse not better”

    Surely, to make any definitive statement on that matter, you would need to know if the cockpit crew did make reasonable attempts to contact ATC wrt the possible pilot deviation (IIRC it’s reported that they did try)? You would need to explain to your readers the basics of the procedure of reporting and investigating possible pilot deviation and whether it is the procedure and / or the people involved in this case are at fault in your opinion (presumably as ever a non expert!) ?

    You might also add how such an incident would be classified, rather than resorting to histrionic hyberbole (“nearly a disaster of epic proportions”) and claims of “whitewashing” by the union.

    Now, for the record, the union has stated publicly with regard to the NTSB investigation: “We respect the process and we’re going to let that run its full course.”

    Perhaps, Gary, that is exactly what you should be doing? Rather than being ever the hypocrite and engaging in attempting to craft a narrative around this event – as exactly you ironically accuse the union?

    Do you not agree that everyone should patently await the results of the investigation? And said investigation should made a comprehensive analysis of any potential contributing factors, including, but not limited to human factors, training, ATC comm’s, efficiency of crew resource, maintain/loose situational awareness, state of visibility, etc etc?

    And should we not recognise that the contingencies within the system were effected?

    And can anyone verify whether this incident was as close to catastrophe as Gary Leff and others would have us believe – there is a big difference between the DL 737 stopping 1000ft from the intersection of the taxiway and runway (where the 777 once crossed), and stopping 1000ft from the 777 whilst still in the middle of the runway strip!

  20. Hey Feminist,
    What kind of verbiage do you suppose would be on the Delta cvr? Care to chastise those polits too?

  21. Hey Gary Leff, stick to things you actually know something about like getting airline and hotel points. You’re waaay out of your league on flight safety issues and are not in a position to pass judgment on how this incident occurred.

  22. And by the way it is APA’s responsibility to defend their pilots. In aircraft incident/ accident the FAA, airline, airport authority, aircraft manufacturer, tire manufacturer, etc all have armies of lawyers to absolve their organizations of blame and go after the easiest target ie the pilots. Pilot’s pay dues to their unions to defend them in these situations. No one else will.

  23. @Dave – if you think I’ve written anything that is inaccurate you might… suggest even one specific thing I’ve written that you think is inaccurate.

  24. @platy the source of the quotes in that article appears quite obviously to be Dennis Tajer, and I did not reference just the Ted Reed piece here.

    The decision of the pilots to continue to London means we likely won’t have all of the information about what was going on in the cockpit during this incident, but overall I’d much prefer to wait for the full investigation than see APA feed nonsense articles and go on TV blaming the company in ways make little sense. And all I’m doing here is pointing out the way that these arguments by folks not waiting for the investigation are ludicrous.

  25. It’s unfortunate when the union takes its duty to defend its members‘ careers at the expense of basic accountability for a fundamental failure with regard to safely operating a flight. But they should think that they also have a duty to protect their members’ lives from these and other pilots too.

  26. I was a controller for 38 years including ORD. The F word was blurted out more than you can imagine in moments of “ah s##t” situation about to occur. Human sudden stress reaction.

  27. Ted Reed’s statement that the new procedures did not contribute to this is a premature and presumptive. There is no way to know this without a complete and thorough investigation, including an interview with the crew members.

    As Dave stated, a union’s job is to represent and advocate for its members, which is what they are doing. Obviously there is pilot error involved. But were there underlying or contributing causes?

    The never-ending changes that airlines make can be detrimental to established processes. The question is: are the changes/new procedures helpful (more safe) or not (or neutral). Companies want to make the training as brief (i.e. least costly) as possible, but you get what you pay for when it comes to training. (e.g 737 Max debacle)

    I am a commercial airline pilot, so I speak from experience when I say that small changes in procedure can really make a difference in your ability to multi-task. Especially when you are new to an airplane.

  28. End of the day the CVR conversations/tape would be the most important part of determining exactly what led to this. Most unfortunately, it appears this segment was erased since the fight was allowed to continue. In addition to the pre-incursion crew discussions, what exactly went on during the 30 minutes before the flight was released? Hopefully, the phone call to the number provided to the crew was recorded. One “missing link” relates the red lights indicating an active runway in service. According to one report JFK ops checked them immediately after the incident and they were working properly. New procedures and a new B777 co-pilot won’t explain this. Besides it was the Captain taxiing the aircraft.

  29. The loss of CVR data is most unfortunate. We’ll never know if the sterile cockpit rule was properly observed, which given that none of the pilots noticed how they were entirely on the wrong tarmac, may well have been a major factor among other distractions. That and the total denial of the severity of what happened by AA and personnel is most disturbing.

  30. My aunt was on the Dekta flight. Continuing with the AA flight to London was a way to sabotage the investigation by overwriting the audio recordings. Now the near-killers had the first few hours of the flight to London, and more time on the ground, to coordinate their preferred story. We’ll never know the truth now. And the union is shameless. Instead of encouraging transparency and a safety culture, they go all in with thuggish defenses of their own guys, at all costs. They care nothing for safety, it’s all about jobs and power for them. Screw them to hell.

  31. As a Pilot reading alot of this coverage is not encouraging. ATC Ground gives pilots Taxi instructions to the Active runway Via a specific Taxiway.
    Pilots are required to read back clearance exactly. The Captain and Ground should have detected The AA aircraft on the wrong taxi path to the wrong active runaway for take off.
    Pilots must get an additional Ground clearance to cross a Runway and must hold short of the Double lines on the Taxi Way before Ground clearance gives a clearance to cross a Runway is received.
    A pilot should not be concerned with switching to a Tower frequency while taxing across an Active Runway without Clearance. I hope this details and fills in the gaps in the coverage a this extremely important possible incursion.
    Finger pointing and name calling isn’t going to inform the public, aa well as fellow pilots.

  32. With simple cell phones holding hundreds of videos, thousands of photos and many many hours of music…. it is incomprehensible to me that airlines cannot store more than the last 2 hours of cockpit conversations.

    They easily could store 24 hours, a week, a year of conversations if they wanted to.

    I read that the pilot unions are against that. Looks like they prefer to cover their behinds in case of mistakes than find out what happened….. this may be detrimental to their own health on a future flight.

  33. @ Gary Leff

    “the source of the quotes in that article appears quite obviously to be Dennis Tajer and I did not reference just the Ted Reed piece here.”

    Yes, Dennis Tajer is spokesperson for the APA. Some may recall he publicly stood up for the pilots in the 737MAX accidents, ironically on the basis of lack of effective pilot training for MCAS incidents.

    Now, let’s not get confused, Gary. He did make comment on the APA’s behalf some days BEFORE this incident on the topic of the efficacy of training of new procedures per the 35 page bulletin.

    BUT the references you cite in your article do not credit Dennis Tajer as their source of professional commentary ON THE INCIDENT.

    If Dennis Tajer or the union have made a public statement, which supports your allegations of a “whitewash” and “running interference”, please go ahead and provide a citation for such.

    It’s your article, your claim and your responsibility to back yourself.

    There is nothing on the APA website about this incident.

    If the APA was pushing an agenda why be clandestine?!

    “The decision of the pilots to continue to London means we likely won’t have all of the information about what was going on in the cockpit during this incident”

    That may indeed be the case depending upon the protocols for the CVR. But we also don’t know who and how the decision was made to continue with the flight, whether there was consultation with airline, etc.

    “overall I’d much prefer to wait for the full investigation”

    Clearly, that’s not the case, since you are making spurious claims (including your items 1,2,3) without full knowledge of the events.

    “than see APA feed nonsense articles and go on TV blaming the company”

    Provide the evidence of your assertion.

    “in ways make little sense.”

    You clearly have very poor knowledge of aviation safety, Gary. I’m asserting such as somebody, who has developed safety training for the operators of about a dozen airports under the guidance of Australia’s (former) lead accident investigator.

    “And all I’m doing here is pointing out the way that these arguments by folks not waiting for the investigation are ludicrous.’

    In your non expert opinion.

    That you are doing that yourself, makes you an utter hypocrite.

    A thorough investigation could reasonably be expected to look at ALL potential contributing factors. Most incidents are not attributable to a single issue.

  34. Re swearing in the workplace my mother, who was a teacher in a private school, admonished me on the use of profanity when I graduated from college and went to work for one of the then Big 8 accounting firms.

    Boy was she misinformed :).

  35. Amazing how many just don’t know how little they just don’t know . . . including the owner of this blog. Pilots pay union dues (around 1.5% +/- of GROSS earnings) and just one benefit, of those monthly union dues, is representation. It’s NOT the union’s position to determine guilt or innocence but to represent the pilots and their careers. It’s the union’s duty.

  36. Two sets of instructions from ground control. Crew didn’t follow the first set by missing the right turn at Kilo Echo. Ground then tried to get them to make another right at Kilo (i believe ) and assumed they did that. Instead, the crew missed that turn and decided to cross an active runway (4L). This error falls squarely on the flight crew (who clearly confirmed both instructions from GC). Then to add insult-to-injury they didn’t follow through with the instructions to call it in and flew to London anyway. It doesn’t matter if they keep you on hold for 5 minutes or 500. If PIC doesn’t listen and obey to ATC/GC, we have a broken system . YOU CANT JUST GO ROGUE !

  37. A couple of comments appear to indicate the crew did not follow the directions to call the number provided to discuss the incident. I have seen nothing to indicate one way or the other whether this was carried out. Given the 30 minutes before the actual take-off, I would hope this was in fact carried out and, hopefully, it is recorded. That should answer who made the decision to allow the flight to proceed thereby leading to the issue with the CVR data available.

  38. “platy”…. do not know you, but I thank you for your well thought out comments… I, of course, have never made any errors in my some forty years (22,000+ hours) of flying, three in general aviation, five in the military, 30 with the airlines, and five in Part 135… Yes, this could have been catastrophic… but when others (not you, sir), so easily point a finger, they often forget there are three other fingers on that self-rightous hand pointing back at themselves!!! Until there is appropriate reseach and investigation, let us all continue to be as dilligent in safety awarnes, as we can be…

  39. @Stephan Christian Essinger

    FWIW I consider myself to have been extremely privileged to have worked for several years alongside an exceptional aviator, whose career had included flying for the RAAF, flight instructor for the RAAF, lead national accident investigator, and then latterly a consultant, including to a major international airport investigating the background to various incidents, including runway incursions, so that we could develop scenario-based eLearning safety training (not 35-page bulletin documents) that addressed the root causes of such events, usually manifold and typically with some human factor.

    That person was the second most logically gifted human being I have ever personally met and taught me never to jump to conclusions about the causes of safety incidents in an airport operational environment, rather to rely on the very “appropriate research and investigation” that you identify in your post.

    Yes, let’s all travel safe, with due respect for the processes and people that keep us safe, and with an open mind about how such an ever be improved.

  40. @ Maverick


    It’s extremely unlikely that the pilots went “rogue”, as you histrionically declare!

    The causes of this incident are to be investigated and it’s not my intention to presume the outcomes of such.

    But in addressing your claim of “rogue” behaviour please broaden the scope of your thought process to encompass:

    1. Situational awareness
    2. Distraction
    3. Human factors
    4. Communication

    Situational awareness is key to safety (what is my mental map of the airfield, where am I and what is my orientation, what does the signage tell me, what are other aircraft and vehicles going, what do the radio calls tell me about movements of other aircraft / vehicles on the airfield, what is the flow of traffic on the taxiways, what runways are in operation, what is the flow of traffic on the runways, where am I going , what is my likely route to get there, what instructions have been given by ATC controlling ground, what instructions by ATC controlling the runway traffic, etc, etc).

    Situational awareness can be made complicated / compromised by any number of factors (just as it can when you are driving a vehicle landslide!), including, but restricted to day / night, weather, complexity of taxiway intersections, poor signage, etc, etc.

    Distraction can divert the mental focus, just as it does when you drive a vehicle landslide. Such distractions can be due to any number of triggers, including pressure to get the job done faster, trying to manage several tasks, personal issues, novel processes, etc.

    Human factors can be very interesting. One example is that our minds will seize upon what we expect to hear or observe based on our prior conceptions (just as Gary above claims union whitewashing with no actual direct evidence, since he adopts an a priori anti-union precondition and makes the story fit his expectation).

    Now in this case, we might reasonably observe that all of these fundamental issues MIGHT have been in play:

    1. The crew apparently deviated from ATC instruction (they lost their situational awareness – we need to know why)
    2. The crew MAY have been distracted (we need to know if they were indeed distracted and if so, by what / how, which is why the newly advised process may need to be considered as a factor)
    3. Human factors MAY have been in play (the crew appear to have expected to proceed to 31L – why was this?)
    4. And were all comm’s clear and compliant? (go back and listen to the very first taxi clearance!)

    I stress that in citing the (simplistic scope) above, I am not trying to attribute cause or judge any of the players. I’m simply trying to illustrate that the inherent issues of such an incident are not as simply discernible as your good self and others seem to presume.

    Various issues/observations raised on pilot blogs based on real life experience of flying out of JFK may or may not factor in an investigation and may or may not prove to have been in play upon investigation. They variously include, but aren’t limited to:

    – Uncertainty of taxiway route before push back (clockwise / anticlockwise)
    – Uncertainty of departing runway (4L or 31L)
    – Alleged rapid delivery of ATC instructions at JFK
    – Prepping for the assumed runway departure (which may or may not be the actual one!)
    – The intricacies of the taxiway layout at the relevant part of the airfield
    – New process to be followed
    – Timing of switching radio comm’s from one ATC channel (for taxi) to another (for runway)
    – etc, etc

    Let’s await the outcome of the investigation!

  41. The fact that these pilots were permitted and advised to take to the air is problematic. That’s a terrible operating policy and union advice. Company policy to a runway incursion should be to stand the crew down pending investigation, secure the recorders, and the union advice should be to get off the jet ASAP and talk to their representative.

    This action would have preserved the evidence, allowed the crew to be tested for AOD and allowed interviews to take place in a timely fashion. Who is at fault in the matter is inconsequential, the investigation is severely hampered because several items of evidence simply no longer exist. Blaming a long briefing document for allowing a professional crew to taxi a widebody aircraft onto an incorrect runway seems on first glance to be a little bit of a stretch. They shouldn’t be moving if they aren’t briefed on the flight, including any changes to procedures.

    If AOD (Alcohol and Other Drugs) were at play (not saying they were… being comprehensive), this is now based on the say so of the crew. Let’s be honest, that would be an extremely odd crew that dobs themselves in. If distraction was at play (this new process or not), we can’t conclusively determine that now because the CVR is long overwritten. Again we rely on the crew’s evidence which again is going to be subject to bias. This would also have provided the radio transmissions as received by the crew, again lost to time now and subject to the crew’s recall and bias.

    It would have been FAR simpler to conclude the facts of the matter if the pilots had gone back to the gate, shut down, collared the recorders and waited for their union reps. Humans make mistakes, that is exactly why we have Just Culture in aviation. To carry on and remove the vast majority of the evidence is not Just Culture, it gives off a bad odour when the crew claim they did nothing incorrect.

    PS I’m merely an outsider, but I would wager that the controllers were both removed from position ASAP, possibly given AOD tests, all the recordings secured for the investigation and probably given the rest of the shift off! That gives you some objective comparison to the actions of AA here.

  42. Well, Gary Leff certainly is no expert in this area – not even close. Let’s make that clear first. He clearly does not understand how busy it can be on a flight deck, how easy it is to make a mistake. Rapid fire controllers (as this controller was) don’t help either. Clearly the flight crew shares in the blame, but to insinuate that the flight crew alone is responsible misses the big picture and excuses other parties, policies and procedures that well may have contributed to the setup of this incident.

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