United And Alaska Airlines Aborted Landing In San Francisco To Avoid Hitting Southwest Airlines Jet

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.

Here’s air traffic control audio from the incident and here’s the path of the aircraft.

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.

(HT: @gobears99)

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Aborted landings stink, especially when it’s your first one. Flying into O’Hare, maybe only 50 feet off the runway, the engines roar to life and we take straight back off. Across from me is the flight attendant, and she looked really scared. Lady next to me dug her fingers into me. After what seemed like forever, captain finally comes back on and says there was a runway incursion, and we took another 15 minutes to land.

    The other two were mild in comparisons, except on happened right after 9/11, so spring 2002, landing into Philly from the East, and abort but we were higher up and right before the runway. Except this time, the pilot doesn’t climb that far up, maybe 500 feet and banks hard right.

    And if you know the Philly airport, banking far right and doing a 180 (or a little less) brings you literally right over downtown Philadelphia. Which is what happened, we circled downtown at a very low altitude, and immediately landed, probably within 5 minutes. But knowing that we weren’t that high- certainly it seemed not higher than Philly’s tallest building it seemed- and after 9/11 was still scary.

  2. This is becoming concerning at SFO in particular where their air traffic control can longer keep up bwith the traffic. There are lots of delays in and put of there lately due to this.

    If we don’t start modernizing this asap, we’re going to have a disaster on our hands.

  3. if the cause was that two pilots “stepped on” the controller’s transmission then that highlights the risk of that technology (or lack thereof) and the lack of confirmation from either the WN plane or the controller of what either thought.
    ATC is still a human function but there are 3 legs in the safety system and most of the ATC related incidents it was the pilots in the 3rd aircraft that provided the necessary margin of safety.
    If there were a single reason for these incidents, then it would easy to correct the problems but that is not the case

  4. Interesting. The week before this happened, I was arriving SFO on EK’s 380 from Dubai and we aborted our landing, but not as close to the runway as the planes in this story. The pilot said the they were told to abort by ATC. I’ve experienced a few aborted landings through the years and I’m always amazed at how fast and steep we climb away. And this time, the 380 did not disappoint! It was a somewhat exciting conclusion to an otherwise quiet 16 hours in the air.

  5. Most of those incidents are likely caused due to the 1500h (meaning the you can only become a FO with 1500h flight time in the US, comoared to 250h in the rest of the world) rule causing a massive pilot shortage which leads to airlines hiring questionable pilots.

  6. Canada is decades ahead of us because bureaucrats and politicians only want to continue funding the status quo instead of improving and innovating.

  7. Is there a way to look up this info for specific flights? I was flying LIH-SFO on May 15 and we had a pretty late go-around right before we were about to touch down. The weather was fine and once we got back up yo 5000 feet the pilot told us there had been a plane on the runway.

    I assumed this article was going to be about my flight until I saw the dates didn’t match

  8. Southwest is getting the worst of the worst since all their pilots leaving to go to better airlines.

  9. I agree with “Tim Dumb”. This stuff happens everyday, nothing to see here…. Crap happens and there is lots of redundancy.

  10. It is DEAD WRONG (maybe a poor choice of words but…) that air traffic control should be privatized. Airlines pay various landing fees, etc. to fund the FAA. General aviation funds the FAA through taxes on fuel. The users are paying their fair share ( I hate that left wing term but it’s true) to use the system. What needs to happen is for Congress to properly fund the FAA and to oversee the proper spending of those funds. Aviation in most countries is exorbitantly expensive because the users are nitpicked for every tiny item. You want to file a flight plan? Cough up $$$. You want to shoot a practice instrument approach? Cough up more $$$. Go around for another touch and go? Cough up even more $$$. All one needs to see what a total goat rope looks like is to look at military procurement buying from a private company…so much graft and waste. Find a FAA administrator (such as the former Captain Steve Dickson) who knows aviation instead of the pathetic nominee that the current administration put forth just to “fill a quota”. Insanity.

  11. If the ATC communication to the SWA pilot to depart 28R got stepped on, the the SWA pilot did not get it and did not read back. Consequently, ATC should not have assumed the instruction was received before clearing United to land, right?

  12. I dont disagree with privatizing, but I think they should be made a govt corporation. The big difference is that Canada’s ATO is run by the airlines. A govt-run corporation is like the post office or the St. Lawrence Seaway Corp. The govt doesn’t run them like other govt agencies, they run like a business. However, the govt can still regulate/control them. Canada saw their fees go up 4x. Why? If the board is composed of primarily large airlines, they are going to vote to raise fees, because that means they have to pay less money.
    With a corporation, you get most of the advantages(budget autonomy, etc) but without the risk of them getting out of control and just wasting money, as the govt can still set rates.

  13. Been on a go-around, we were farther out when the runway incursion happened so it was very undramatic–a novice flier might not even have realized it if the pilot hadn’t said anything. IIRC it was SFO.

  14. I’m glad the USA pilots have been well trained and know how to and when to abort. I always think about the Asiana flight and Thai Airways flight 261.

  15. The ‘stepped-on’ transmission, more accurately, heterodyne, was the cause of the Tenerife collision between PA and KL many years ago.

  16. David,

    How bout that of the controller while u are at it. I know liberals are over sensitive on identity politics…. Us normal folks just want high standards, hiring the best (whether it be pilots/controllers or management at the DOT) and being blind to race/gender/ or who u feel like screwing that day …..when it comes to the hiring/trng process… so IF the best were being hired regardless or race/gender no one would care, because there would b nothing to question…. It’s ONLY because current politics warp that process questions crop up whether deserved or not!

  17. An issue with FAA run upgrades is that to get congressional approval they must spread their contract among hundreds of congressional districts. This leads major integration issues when the different companies smash together their pieces.

  18. All pilots in all types of aircraft, with the exception of gliders, train for go-arounds from pre-solo to their last pre-retirement check ride. While this is not a “non event” it is a normal operation and procedure is briefed prior to the approach. The system worked exactly as it is supposed to. Brief the approach, fly the approach. Both the landing pilots made a wise decision to execute a go around and resolve the conflict.

  19. Rjb,
    I’m a retired ATC, you are correct. A read back not heard is an instruction not given. This is the ATCs flaunt.

  20. Two pilots “hitting the microphone button blocking the transmission.” Deadly dangerous! Isn’t there better technology?

  21. My company’s procedures are…if you don’t understand, stop and ASK! When crossing an active runway (in this case, the left side) we look in BOTH DIRECTIONS and confirm to each other that we’re cleared to cross. If our clearance isn’t understood or “got stepped on”, STOP and ASK! “Tower, XX1234, did you say we’re cleared to line up and wait?” When cleared to line up and wait, we say to out loud in the cockpit, “‘We’ve got a clear runway. We’ve got a clear approach and we have “min fuel” for takeoff”. The SW pilot acknowledged, “…we never got that clearance.” Well, if that’s the case, the controller was correct in saying, “…you shouldn’t be on the runway.” We all make mistakes but as I’m fond of saying, “We don’t make a mistake unless both of us make a mistake.”

  22. ATC clearly gave Southwest instructions to “line up and wait” on 28R. The fault is on ATC, not on the pilots, who did exactly as they were told. Gary, it’s disappointing that you would say the pilot didn’t follow instructions here.

  23. “It’s not clear that planes would have collided, but they were unacceptably close”. By your standard, maybe, but the system worked. The surface surveillance system warned the controller of the UAL issue and the controller issued the go-around, not the pilot. The second (ASA) wasn’t even close. Both times SWA was clear of the Runway Safety Area well before the arrival crossed the landing threshold on their go-around.
    ‘Other than the Southwest pilot, who didn’t follow (and may not have internalized) instructions, everyone did everything right.” What did SWA do wrong? They had to wait while an aircraft departed 28L, maybe being a bit cautious about jet blast. Then, they entered 28R after being told to Line Up and Wait. There was no Runway Incursion because they had been cleared onto both runways.
    Finally, linking this to the Air Canada event is faulty thinking. One was a tight squeeze at a very busy airport at a very busy time; the other was a pilot who had mistakenly aligned with the taxiway. It’s like trying to compare a busy intersection on a road and a truck that mistakes the sidewalk for a street. Be careful how you try to scare the flying public just to make $$.

  24. ATC clearly gave Southwest instructions to “line up and wait” on 28R. SW Did Exactly what he was instructed to do, not a runway incursion. An aborted landing at the discretion of pilot is not a problem but ATC must redirect the entire communication direction to all three aircraft involved and that takes a few seconds to get ack back ,one at a time. That’s the present system. ATC ‘s got to carry the com lead in this. And yes timing is critical. Anything from this should be, how can we do it better.

  25. For all of the Doom & Gloomers who are trying to equate a go-around to a dangerous circus stunt, you are “Dead Wrong” to borrow from a previous posting. A go-around is absolutely identical to a takeoff but instead of starting from the beginning of the runway, it is initiated in the air. Procedures are the same and it is no more “dangerous” than a normal takeoff. For the uninitiated, I can see where there may be concern, expecially if the Captain doesn’t have time to make a quick PA explaining what happened. As for the reasons for the go-arounds, they are for another discussions but go-arounds are a simple maneuver just as a takeoff is a simple maneuver. My opinion is based on 39 years of flying ending as a 777 International Captain.

  26. The problem seems to stem from KSFO controllers criss-crossing departures across the approach ends of both runways. They seem to lose SA on who’s been cleared to do what. I suggest they close off the taxiway between 28L and 28R at the departure end and only move departures onto the nearest runway without crossing the parallel.

    The SWA pilot did nothing wrong. The controller didn’t want an argument because she knows she lost SA. This was not her first rodeo — my response would have been “Pull the tapes, please.”

  27. Planes go around all the time, #fakenews. With the amount of air traffic if one plane is slow or late it causes a ripple effect. If WN was cleared to line up and wait, they were not in the wrong. It sounds like the same ATC from a month ago who had a disagreement and verbal altercation with another aircraft.

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