On May 19, a United Airlines flight was forced to abort landing in order to avoid a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 on the runway. Then an Alaska Airlines jet aborted its landing, too.
Air traffic control called out the Southwest pilot – “you shouldn’t be on the runway” – yet the FAA dismisses this in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle saying that there was no runway incursion (because of the aborted landings!) and that they “looked into the incident and determined the appropriate steps were taken to ensure a safe operation.”
Friday’s incident began to unfold around 9:08 a.m., when United Flight 277, arriving from Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., was cleared to land on Runway 28 Left. Aircraft fly low over San Francisco Bay, moving east to west, before landing on 28 Left or Right, parallel runways that lie 750 feet apart.
At about 9:10 a.m., the United captain broadcast that he was “going around.” At that moment, FlightAware data showed the Boeing 737 Max had descended to roughly 225 feet and was about a mile away from the start of the runway and the Southwest plane. The FAA video showed the plane dropped to about 350 feet before aborting.
Ross Aimer, a former commercial airline pilot and aviation consultant, called the aborted landing “too close for comfort.”
Southwest has been cleared to cross runway 28 Left to prepare for departure from 28 Right. However it took 20 seconds for the plane to actually clear the runway and 36 seoconds to clear the hold short lines.
Seconds after the aborted landing, according to the video, the Southwest flight taxied onto Runway 28 Right.
Aimer, after reviewing the audio record, said it sounded like the Southwest pilot did not hear the controller’s clearance for departure from that runway because the transmission got blocked, meaning two pilots hit their mic buttons at the same time, obscuring the controller’s full instruction. Moments later, the air traffic controller asked the Southwest pilot, “Are you departing?”
He responded: “We never got that clearance.”
The controller replied: “OK, so you shouldn’t be on the runway.”
The pilot began to explain what happened: “The last plans we got were to line up and wait.”
The controller responded, tersely: “I don’t need an argument on frequency.”
At that point, the Southwest plane was told to exit Runway 28 Right onto a taxiway as Alaska Airlines Flight 553, which was cleared to land on that runway, was closing in. But it was too close. As the plane dropped to about 550 feet, according to the data and audio, the landing was aborted.
It’s not clear that planes would have collided, but they were unacceptably close, and a clear communication failure occurred. Other than the Southwest pilot, who didn’t follow (and may not have internalized) instructions, everyone did everything right. But like many reason near-misses, the margin for safety was limited.
In February there was a near-disaster as a FedEx cargo jet nearly landed on top of a Southwest Airlines flight in Austin. The FedEx Boeing 767 had been cleared to land, and the Southwest 737 cleared to take off. The two planes narrowly averted disaster.
And this followed an incident in January where an American Airlines Boeing 777 to London taxied down the wrong runway, right in front of a departing Delta 737. The Delta jet aborted takeoff at the last minute.
When that American-Delta incident occurred my first thought was to the Air Canada flight that nearly landed right where four planes were waiting to take off in San Francisco in 2017. The Air Canada A320 from Toronto was just feet above a United Airlines widebody when it initiated an aborted landing and go around. The United captain can be heard in an air traffic control recording saying “He’s on the taxiway.”
Watch the upper left hand corner of this video from terminal 2 security to see the plane pull up at the last moment.
While aviation in the United States remains safe, these incidents – and others – are concerning. There are air traffic control staffing shortages, and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization has bungled technology improvements for twenty years. The ATO should be put under a separate organization, spun off out of the FAA, so that they aren’t regulating themselves. And they should be funded by user fees, rather than tax dollars, and taken out of the annual appropriations cycle. Ideally, following the NavCanada model, they’d be able to issue bonds for capital improvements rather than seeking funds for long-term upgrades year-by-year.