What We Know Now About Friday Night’s Near-Disaster At JFK Airport

On Friday night, American Airlines flight 106 from New York JFK to London Heathrow had a near-collision with a Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 headed to Santo Domingo. The incident was first reported by aviation watchdog JonNYC.

The American plane, a 22 year old Boeing 777-200 (registration N754AN) crossed in front of the Delta jet that was in its takeoff roll. Air traffic control saw this happening and at almost the last possible moment called out to Delta to abort takeoff, out of fear the two planes would collide (“Shit! Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance!”).

  • The Delta flight stopped less than 1000 feet from where it would have intersected with American’s plane.

  • Runway 4L was being used for takeoffs. The American Airlines aircraft did not follow air traffic control instructions. ATC audio shows they were told to “”cross runway 31 Left at Kilo” and instead crossed runway 4 Left at Juliet, in front of the accelerating Delta Boeing 737.

The American Airlines pilots clearly got their instructions wrong. Disaster was narrowly avoided. We don’t know at this point that the accelerating Delta jet would have hit the American plane, but it might have, this was a huge mistake with potentially tragic consequences. The FAA is investigating and we’ll eventually hear much more detail.

American Airlines 106 wound up departing for London from runway 31L after a call to report the incident to JFK Tower.

The Delta flight to Santo Domingo was delayed until the next morning. In a rejected takeoff like this one, where heavy use of brakes is applied, they may have wanted to have the plane inspected by maintenance. Crew may have timed out. Or the pilots may have just called it a night, quite reasonably deciding that after a near-miss it was best not to continue. That would have been more than reasonable judgment.

As I previously shared, you can watch the two aircraft in this illustration. At 14 seconds in you see the Delta plane in its takeoff roll, aborting at the last minute as the American Airlines Boeing 777-200 crossed right in front of it.

Ultimately, based on what we know at this point, 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 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. Really incredible to be confronted with the stark reality that despite all of the safety procedures, the system is still so ripe for a human error. I wonder if the ATC wasn’t run by an unaccountable government bureaucracy, whether they wouldn’t have moved on to a more automated and failsafe system by now.

  2. I work in a different industry, but one that is comparable in terms of safety. When we have much more minor safety violations occur, with much less severe potential consequences than this, the employees involved are always immediately removed from service pending the investigation and D&A results. I’m not passing judgement on these pilots, yet anyway, but given what happened, in my industry, they would be out of service until we KNEW exactly what happened. Of course, if they were to be exonerated (which does happen) they would be made whole.

    Can SOMEONE explain to me how these pilots were allowed to continue their flight?

  3. @Mak This “failsafe” system you speak of doesn’t (and won’t) exist. Mistake was made, disaster was averted, and they’ll all learn from it when the dust settles.

  4. And Mak steps up to politicize a human error. Nice job, and a bonus for just using 2 sentences.

  5. Bless you, ATC people for saving Delta Airlines from crashing into an American Airlines aircraft.

  6. “…unaccountable government bureaucracy…” and you know this how? After several hundred hours of piloting time I do agree that the FAA has serious administrative issues. But ATC runs very well as a functional organization within it, staffed by highly dedicated men and women who know what they are doing. And they are assuredly responsible for their actions. Lots of luck replacing them with computers. Who would you blame then? The programmers?

  7. The intersection is only about 4,000 feet into 4L’s takeoff roll. The 737 requires a bit over 6,300 feet to achieve Vr and perhaps another 1,500 to 2,000 feet to hit 35 feet in altitude. (Short field procedures aren’t in play at JFK.) If the 777 was still at the intersection, there’s no question that there would have been a collision. Kudos to the ATC . . . whose name will probably never be known.

  8. Retired ATC here. Great job by JFK controller. Had two documented saves in my career. Anyone who wants a for profit or an NGO entity controlling our airports and airspace (and yes I’m aware there are contract towers in the NAS that are under federal guidelines) is either uninformed or just an ideologue with an ax to grind.

  9. I just love all the alt-right wackjobs coming out on this post and the previous one, claiming this all could have been avoided if the FAA wasn’t run by “big gubmint.” Sure, privatize the FAA, make them a for-profit company, and watch them invest in safety the same way Southwest invests in automation.

  10. There are serious issues that can be discussed about technical investments which can augment human judgment, in the cockpit and the tower, but air traffic control seemed to perform well here and also worth noting that most proposals to separate the ATO from FAA (and thus have work performed and regulated by separate entities) involving spinning it out into a non-profit like NavCanada rather than a for-profit entity.

  11. @Mak
    You lost the argument by putting “automated” and “failsafe” in the same sentence. This is a pipe dream. These systems designed by humans, deployed by humans and operated by humans. They simply shift or attempt to shift blame to other humans – think Tesla Autopilot. They might have a better track record in the long run, but in very limited areas and using very creative KPIs.

  12. @Tim Kelly – I’ve heard apparently DAL1943 was at 115+ kts when they slammed on the brakes, which would be pretty close to V1. Although I think that figure might’ve just come from JonNYC’s Twitter thread, and one counter datapoint would be that the Delta pilots tell ATC they’re immediately ready to clear the active, and don’t request to hold on the runway or taxiway immediately outside, in order to let brakes cool down.

  13. @Gary – I’d be happy to have a serious conversation about the merits of a public-private partnership to replace the FAA. Air Traffic Control in the UK is run the same way, regulated under the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) but run by a private entity, albeit a nonprofit / NGO. But these are not serious people looking to have a serious conversation.

    Interestingly, the UK’s rail infrastructure is ALSO run under this model. All the rails in the UK are owned and maintained by NetworkRail. Passenger and freight services pay them fees to use the trackage, and in return if a service ever doesn’t run to time because of rail maintenance / infrastructure degradation issues then they owe compensation back to the service operators.

    Can you imagine the uproar if we ever moved to adopt a similar model of nationalizing all the privately-owned rail networks in the country, and then turning them over to an NGO to maintain? Incidentally, we need only look at our rail infrastructure to understand how bad truly privately-owned and maintained infrastructure can get.

  14. “Can you imagine the uproar if we ever moved to adopt a similar model of nationalizing all the privately-owned rail networks in the country”

    Well, Amtrak… 😉

  15. And Amtrak works great (relatively speaking) in the Northeast Corridor, which is the only part of the country where they own the trackage! Well enough to put the AA shuttle out of business, at any rate. As an NYC resident, I can’t tell people from other parts of the country enough how pleasant it is to take an Acela from Penn Station – recently renovated with Moynihan Train Hall actually feeling like a European-style big-city hub station or terminal (which strictly speaking, Penn is not, it’s a through-station) – to Union Station in DC.

  16. @Luke – Amtrak is terribly run, track aside, and operated to please political interests to further access to subsidies rather than operated to deliver quality service for customers where it’s actually useful and in demand

  17. @Fr8dawg Failsafe might be slightly too strong a word, but Americans merely need to look at the privatized ATAC in that freewheeling capitalist country Canada to see how it could be improved, where automated controllers “CAATS,” “ADS-B,” and space based surveillance that have made the skies safer for everybody and where innovation has made possible routes over the North Pole which has cut millions of collective hours off of flying time between North America and Asia which never, ever, would have been possible had the self-serving revolving-door bureaucrats at the FAA been responsible for it. American provincialism prevents people in the USA from understanding how backwards its transportation system – from it’s still mostly Soviet style air infrastructure, to ports, to roads, to rail – is.

  18. @Sam “And Mak steps up to politicize a human error. Nice job, and a bonus for just using 2 sentences.”

    Shame on me for trying to improve Air Traffic Control. I’m so embarrassed.

    Much better to allow bureaucrats with lifetime sinecures and revolving doors to lucrative gigs at Raytheon, Boeing, GE, etc. to feather their beds at the expense of public safety and innovation.

    At least I’m not as bad as the angry families of ET302 and JT610 politicizing the deaths of their loved ones by calling for accountability in the FAA and their cozy relationship with Boeing! Thanks to your admonition, I’ll never stoop so low! Thank you most gratefully!

  19. Pilot here… many things went wrong here and this will warrant a full investigation. For those asking, there are multiple layers of preventative measures that failed, including some that do not rely upon humans. A Runway Status Light (RWSL) system is installed at JFK, which automatically displays red lights across the runway entrance when the system detects that the runway is occupied. According to a slide from the FAA website, these lights were installed on taxiway Juliet at 4R/22L. No takeoff hold lights were installed on runway 4L, meaning that the Delta 737 would have not been able to detect the American 777 except by using the naked eye (but I can’t determine whether the American 777 was present on the runway at the time that the Delta initiated its takeoff roll). However, despite all the fancy systems, Runway Guard Lights, and lighted airport hold short signs and pavement markings it was the pilot’s decision to enter the runway. And that decision is always subject to human error.

  20. There isn’t a country in the world that has privatized ATC services that are operated for less cost or greater safety.
    Again, the problem here was that what should have been an experienced AA crew made a mistake that was counter to what ATC told them. The US aviation system is built on experienced personnel at every level. Humans do make mistakes but having enough other professionals – ATC and the DL pilots in this case – helps overcome the mistakes of others.
    Trying to turn this into a government discussion distracts from the real issue.

    The 737 might be an old aircraft type – the aircraft in question was relatively young – but Boeing still builds good brakes.

    And I expect that Delta will be asking American to pay for the expenses incurred because of the cancellation of the DL flight.

  21. @Tim Dunn “There isn’t a country in the world that has privatized ATC services that are operated for less cost or greater safety.”

    . . . except for Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom . . . .

    I would say that there isn’t a country in the world that has privatized ATC what has not experienced lower cost, greater safety, and higher innovation that saves passengers time and saves airlines fuel, but feel free to name one if you disagree.

  22. Navcanada ATC works a fraction of the tin US ATC pushes Apples and oranges I worked with Patco rehires who managed to latch on N of our border after the 1981 strike Crackpot rhetoric aside the U.S. government is not going to relinquish control of US airspace not now not ever

  23. « @Sam “And Mak steps up to politicize a human error. Nice job, and a bonus for just using 2 sentences.”

    Shame on me for trying to improve Air Traffic Control. »

    If only you had.

  24. Mak,
    not one of the countries you mention has lower ATC user costs than the US FAA when all aircraft including general aviation aircraft are included.
    None of those countries handles anywhere near the volume, even proportional to their airspace, as the FAA.
    And you can find me statistics on safety but I don’t think ATC safety is an issue in any one of the countries you noted or the US.

    Again, the issue in this case was pilot error – which IS the single most common reason for aircraft accidents.
    We can all be thankful it was ATC and other pilots that prevented this from becoming an accident – but please don’t try to use a system that worked to push an agenda that doesn’t.

  25. The Wall Street Journal – which used real, verifiable sources for its report – states that JFK airport uses the FAA’s Airport Surface Detection System Model X which uses data from sensors to alert controllers of possible runway incursions – and the system did send a warning to controllers.
    The intersection in question also has lights indicating when it is safe to cross an intersection and those also were working.

    Navigating JFK’s airfield is a minefield on a good day but the systems worked.
    For some reason – which should become apparent – at least two AA pilots who presumably were based in NYC so should be very familiar w/ JFK – failed to follow the directions which they acknowledged to ATC and also did not realize that they were crossing a runway that was actively being used for departures while they were heading for another runway that was not being used for departures.

    again, this was a case of pilot error, not ATC failure and there is no basis that ATC anywhere else could have done this differently or better.

  26. @Tim Dunn “not one of the countries you mention has lower ATC user costs than the US FAA when all aircraft including general aviation aircraft are included.”

    It doesn’t sound like you know much about the issue, because if you did you would know that the substantial costs of the FAA are borne by taxpayers – including those who are too poor to ever use its services – while the privatized system charges user fees paid by the people who use air traffic control services . . . airlines.

  27. Hey @Mak, you’re living generations behind. You should’ve said that if artificial general intelligence was implemented at JFK then this would simply never had happened.

  28. The AA pilots were allowed to fly as it was a possible pilot deviation from ATC commands. They even said they will check the tapes. You need to look up what the Brasher Warning FAA Order JO 7210.632 is and when it is required to be given by ATC.
    Early notification allows the pilot to learn what ATC says happened and “prepare his notes for response to the allegations.” The name comes from 1985 when Captain Jack Brasher deviated from his assigned altitude. ATC didn’t give him the advisory so his certificate revocation was reversed.
    Innocent until proved guilty

  29. Mak,
    no, the FAA is heavily funded by user fees. Aviation does not get a free ride at the expense of non-aviation user taxpayers.
    The FAA is the most cost efficient ATC provider in the world considering all-in revenue.
    And the FAA provides a number of services including pilot and aircraft certification etc – none of which are under the same organizational structure in other countries that have privatized ATC.

    the ATC cannot tell a pilot to return to the gate. They did tell the AA pilots to call them which they apparently did, during which they undoubtedly gather information.
    It does seem hard to believe that the AA pilots decided to continue the trip when it became immediately apparent that they were at fault.
    Let’s remember, though, that AA had a flight from JFK to LAX in which the wingtip hit the runway due to pilot error and the pilots did not initially see a need to return after takeoff.
    AA also had an A300 crash near JFK because the pilots overextended the rudder, IIRC.
    For some reason, JFK has been the scene of a disproportionate number of AA pilot-related incidents.

  30. The FAA operations budget has been funded by mostly user fees (70-80%) for decades Having an opinion (or an ideological ax to grind) is fine but it’s not the same thing as actually knowing the facts

  31. @Tim Dunn “Mak, no, the FAA is heavily funded by user fees. Aviation does not get a free ride at the expense of non-aviation user taxpayers.”

    No. The FAA only charges overflight fees for flights that enter US airspace but neither take off or land in the USA. Everybody else – including private jets – gets essentially a free ATAC ride at the expense of the taxpayer. These amounted to all of $75 million out of about $25 Billion which it receives in its congressional appropriation . . . paid for by taxpayers. Even these limited overflight fees aren’t reinvested in the FAA as they would be if it was run as a corporation, but used to subsidize Essential Air Services to subsidize people who enjoy living away from major cities . . . demonstrating once again that life in the USA is the art of one half of the population living off of the efforts of the other half. Communism died 40 years ago . . . time to let the FAA know.

  32. Mak, you’re free to just make stuff up here on the internet, just as I am free to point out that you’re doing it. And thanks for playing the communism card, a perfect reveal for the fact that despite the number of words you’ve posted in this thread, you’re not a serious person and you’re not intellectually honest. Feel free to reply with more inane blather, but I’ve read enough of your jive for a lifetime.

  33. @Mark

    Here is what the FAA says about it’s own User Fees in its $25 Billion Congressional Authorization Request for FY2023. Please let us know if the FAA is lying about this so we can sort them out for committing perjury. The actual number of Overflight Fees for aircraft overflying the USA but neither taking off or landing there is actually $74.5 Million . . . I actually gave them credit for $500K that they don’t deserve.

    Federal Aviation Administration
    FY 2023 President’s Budget Submission
    Budget Summary Tables 12
    FY 2021
    FY 2022
    FY 2023
    Civil Aviation Registry Fees 1,411 1,322 1,454
    Foreign Repair Station/Certification Fees 3,511 10,940 12,034
    Aeronautical Charting Fees 41 45 34
    Overflight Fees 36,050 74,504 86,187
    Unmanned Aircraft Systems Registry Fees 1,762 1,276 1,404
    Total User Fees 42,775 88,087 101,113

  34. @Mak “. . . except for Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom . . . .”

    ATC is *not* privatised is most of the countries you cite.

    Australia: Airservices Australia – fully owned by the Australian government
    New Zealand: Airways New Zealand – fully owned by the NZ government
    Germany: Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) – fully owned by the German federal government
    UK: NATS – 49% owned by the UK government, with the rest held by a consortium of airlines and 5% by NATS staff. However the government holds a “golden share”, giving them effectively full control as they are able to outvote all other shareholders combined

    Of your list, only Canada has fully privatised ATC, as in not government owned/controlled.

  35. I am an instructor for a major US airline. I flew back from LHR on one of our codeshare airlines. A flight attendant approached me about him expanding beyond his “PPL”…(in the UK and most other countries, they have a “license”. In the US, we have a “certificate”…big difference). He comes to the US for some flight training as it is cheaper for him to fly here. Why? The privatized ATC charges for everything. In addition to fuel, aircraft rental, etc., he pays £20 PER INSTRUMENT APPROACH! Our FAA, while not perfect, is very safe. Airlines have one form of “paying their way” to use the system. General Aviation pays its way via an aviation fuel tax. To answer the question about aborting the takeoff, my company says that below 80K we will stop for XXXX (aircraft dependent). Between 80 & V1 it is considered a “high speed abort” and is usually “any fire or fire warning, engine failure, predictive windshear alert or afraid the plane won’t fly. Above V1…you gotta fly unless the plane won’t fly. That last option isn’t gonna be pretty. If we do a high speed abort, we wind up going to the gate IF the plane will taxi. As you heard in the audio, the Delta captain said they had to “make some phone calls”. The American pilots would be free to resume their trip to LHR but there will be LOTS of discussion enroute. Yes, they will both file ASAP reports. The FAA will determine if the ASAP report will be accepted.

  36. @Bob ATAC has been privatized in each of these countries. Whether the shares are held by the public, by users, or by shareholders doesn’t change the fact that these organizations are run by corporations with accountable management and their services are paid by users, and not run by unaccountable politicians with their services paid for by taxpayers who might never get in a plane.

  37. @Win Whitmire

    So foreigners come back to the USSA to be subsidized by US taxpayers in its Soviet system so that they don’t need to pay their own way in the capitalist private system in Europe? Are you saying that’s a good thing? It seems to be quite a terrible thing.

  38. Delta 737 aircraft are equipped with an advanced carbon brake system. These brakes can easily stop the aircraft without any problems. Very unlikely it was an aircraft problem that stopped the flight from continuing. This must have been a crew situation to cancel the flight.

  39. @Mak The corporate and revenue structure isn’t relevant to whether an entity is considered privatized or not. If an entity is owned and controlled by the government then it is not private, regardless of how it is funded.

    I do understand your point: funding the FAA with taxpayer’s money is a (yet another) subsidy to the aviation industry, and there is an argument that the FAA would be more efficient and accountable if it were funded by user fees as in many other countries. But to suggest that ATC is “privatized” in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Germany is incorrect.

  40. @Bob Call it whatever you want . . . it’s the least important aspect of the issue. Economists refer to this form of economic organization which is run as a private corporation with professional and non-politically appointed managers and who make their own economic decisions on non-political factors as “privatized,” whether its ATAC, airports, rail, water, electric, etc. The USA trails the world in allowing its transportation and other infrastructure to be run in this manner, preferring political organizations run according to the goals of politicians and not users.

  41. Odd that anyone is trying to use this incident to vilify ATC. They did everything right and deserve nothing but kudos. ….I have to wonder if this incident was, just like Tenerife, a simple case of poor CRM. Cockpit communication clearly broke down when 3 pilots taxi to the wrong runway. or perhaps don’t properly monitor what’s going on at an airport like JFK were active runways can cross and taxing for departure is rarely a simple one.

  42. ATC may have made an error or omission but until full transcript of ATC tapes you won’t know.
    Did AA on initial taxi instructions read back the departure runway and if they didnt ATC should have asked for another read back to confirm they had the departure runway.

  43. Good point Lou, I may have spoke to soon on that. That said, I have flown in and out of JFK often, they are good.
    Still stand by the fact that the Captain should be certain of where they are taxing and the rest of the crew is on the same page. It’s their job to clarify if they aren’t sure about anything.

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