YIKES: Air Traffic Control Cleared *FOUR* Planes To Cross In Front Of Jet About To Take Off From New York JFK

While Thursday’s air traffic control near-miss at Washington’s National airport between JetBlue and Southwest made news, there was another near-disaster Wednesday afternoon involving even more aircraft at New York JFK that somehow didn’t get any attention – until now.

Swiss flight 17 from New York JFK to Zurich was given clearance to take off on runway 4L – as four aircraft crossed right in front of it. This wasn’t one plane crossing in front of the other. It wasn’t one plane being cleared to land on top of the other. This was five planes being put in harms way by controller error.

  • American Airlines 2246 was cleared to cross runway 4L.
  • Delta 29 was cleared to cross runway 4L.
  • Republic 5752 was cleared to cross runway 4L.
  • Delta 420 was cleared to cross runway 4L.

Credit: VAS Aviation

The Swiss pilot saw what was happening and just called out, “Aborting takeoff. Traffic on runway.” Very professional. There was not even an apology from air traffic control.

Finally, it appears that while the Swiss aircraft was still there, not yet having cleared 4L, the controller cleared another aircraft – Delta 668 from Austin – to land there?

Give it a listen, with visual re-enactment:

One small item that surprised me, after the entire incident and while the Swiss flight was heading to depart again, the pilot asks:

Do to the rejected takeoff and to avoid refueling, any chance to depart at Intersection K3?

Surely it’s an exaggeration that they had calculated fuel burn so precisely that the extra taxi on departure would require refueling.

I do have to wonder about a division of labor that involves having two two different controllers doing different things on the same runway, rather than a single controller handling the active runway.

There are 300 near-collisions per year. Famously last year we had the American Airlines New York JFK – London flight which nearly taxied into a Delta 737 and the Fedex plane that was cleared to land on top of a Southwest Airlines 737 in Austin. An FAA technology failure last year led to a nationwide ground stop, so bad it was only the second time that’s ever happened. The other time was 9/11.

The FAA is requiring more rest for controllers. It isn’t clear that rest issues are related to the problems we’ve seen recently, however ‘rattler shifts’ don’t seem like they’d be geared towards alertness. Controllers should get rest. There doesn’t seem to be progress, though, on management and technology issues at the FAA’s air traffic organization.

(HT: JonNYC)

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  1. Anything to do with the current admin’s policy of employing people with disabilities, including mental ones?

  2. Was the plane positioned and holding? Gosh, you could cross the runway with all sorts of stuff – aircraft, food trucks, gas pumpers, go-karts, baby strollers, even cows, gophers and snakes.

    Of course when the runway is clear (don’t forget a FOD walkdown) then you clear it for take-off.

  3. Considering all of the comings and goings daily of aircraft throughout the world, I am surprised that this sort of situation does not happen more often.

  4. There could be a lot of reasons for this fail but it does beg the question about how much experience the on duty controllers had.

  5. Meanwhile, the two Dallas based carriers are worried about little JSX.

    Seems like things have really taken a nosedive since March 2020. Maybe before then when Kennedy Steve retired.

  6. Swiss pilot probably wanted to get more of the incident on the record before departing. LBeing the foreigner and all, with a lot of CYA to follow from ATC and the ground controller.

  7. SWR17K had already started taking off before aborting. Doing that they burned quite a bit of fuel. I don’t think that they were exaggerating on not wanting to go back and possibly being short of required fuel at takeoff. The pilot and copilot have to be aware of the exact numbers. I trust their numbers and judgement. By taking off where they are, they assure themselves that they are first in line instead of going back and possibly having other airplanes before them. The pilots also know how much runway they need to clear any obstacles after the end of the runway.

  8. It isn’t uncommon to clear multiple aircraft to cross an active runway at the same time. The fact that there was an inability for the right and left hands knew what each other was doing is beyond troubling

  9. Its important to remeber that until a few years ago, these recordings were mostly not available and social media was not a thing. I dont think ATC is any safer or unsafer than in the past.

    One thing to note is that when pilots make mistakes, they file de-identified and confidential ASAP reports. Cockpit voice recorders are only allowed to be pulled in very limited circumstances.

    If these ATC recordings scare you then you dont want to see what aee in the thousands of pilot ASAPs every year at each airline.

    They are not published so the public has no clue about them. The outrage would be massive if they were to be leaked to the public and posted online.

  10. @Tim Dunn … It ought to be Forbidden to allow any aircraft to enter or cross an active runway . In the Air Force it is Forbidden to allow helicopters to land on a runway being used for fighter jets to take off .

  11. Another aspect which ought to be Forbidden is any confusion at Night . Too often the conflicting and duplicate Lights are confusing to everyone . There ought always be a separation of 10 Minutes between landings at Night .

  12. It’s not just the shift arrangements that can increase problems with alertness and situational awareness on the job. We also have some awful commute times applicable in the big metropolitan areas that drain people. Also consider how so much electronic “screen time” for personal use on or off the job can impact people’s brains and negatively impact work as a result of that.

    When I was a much younger person, one of my relatives would keep referring to the TV as the “idiot box”. The so-called “smart phone” is today’s “idiot box”.

  13. As a former controller, now retired, ground controller can’t cross any runway without the local controllers permission and acknowledgement of where aircraft are crossing the active runway. It was the local or ground controller that screwed this one up.

  14. Alert,
    US ATC can do a beautiful job of allowing aircraft that have landed to cross runways between departures. When widebodies are taking off, there is more than one minute between departures so there is plenty of time to allow traffic to cross.
    Airport capacity would be cut considerably if no aircraft could cross if a plane was on the runway for departure.
    The problem here is apparent: a lack of coordination between the controller that cleared the departure and those that cleared the traffic to cross.

    Just like the event at DCA, this kind of thing has to be fixed post haste.

  15. There is a minimum required fuel at takeoff for 121 airlines. The Swiss crew was aware that a long(er) taxi back to full length would put them below that number and require a delay, either to add fuel or for the dispatcher to re-calculate the numbers, which could permit a lower takeoff fuel amount.

  16. Just as the most minor correction in imaginable: the clearance to land while Swiss was taxing on the runway was probably not improper, if ATC judged that Swiss would clear the runway with enough buffer, and monitored the situation. That kind of thing happens all the time. You can clear two planes to be in the same place, just not at the same time.

    But yikes, that’s the least of it…

  17. It was a good thing the Swiss pilots were diligent, saw the aircraft’s crossing and took swift action. Could’ve been catastrophic if visibility was low

  18. It’s true that the “clear to land” while the runway is still occupied is common in the US but from what pilots on Youtube have said earlier it’s not done elsewhere because it intentionally bypasses on layer of safety – a communication failure can now cause a crash instead of an aborted landing due to not getting the clearance.
    This practice has caused a lot of near crashes but I don’t think anyone expects the FAA to change their rules until it does cause a crash with deaths – and it is a low albeit unnecessary risk so that will take a very long time. As to why it’s done, it lets them run with (very) slightly less ATC controllers.
    In this case the approaching Delta airline called in at 5 miles after the tower had told Swiss to exit via 31L, later changed to the slightly earlier K4 “if you have it”. It’s unclear if that was as a favor, because he wanted to avoid using runway 31L or if he was starting to get worried that he was going to have to ask the Delta to go around, K4 really isn’t that much earlier though but we don’t have timestamps so can’t be sure.
    I do hope the Swiss pilots reported it to their HQ and that they filed a formal complaint. It doesn’t always need to take up space on the air.

  19. Happens more often than you think. LAS had a similar incident a few weeks ago when a plane that just landed on 26L was cleared to cross 26R after a departure was cleared.

    An even scarier incident was a near miss at LAX last month when two successive departing aircraft almost collided into each other after takeoff.

    This is a case of two different local controllers on different frequencies not coordinating properly. I think other airports, like ATL and DFW, which are much busier, only have one controller per runway pair.

  20. I’m sorry to say that whenever I hear NYC ATC there is a pronounced sense of arrogance along with a lack of professionalism and education. Compare the professionalism of the Swiss pilot – and the radio protocol of the vast majority of pilots – with that of ATC. ATC is infected with entitlement and civil service culture.

  21. @ Tim O’Brien and @AndyS:

    Uhhhh…did you hear their accents? Hardly sounded like DEI hires. Also, these controllers seemed like they were pretty experienced, unlike the DCA ones. They just really messed up.

  22. “Surely it’s an exaggeration that they had calculated fuel burn so precisely that the extra taxi on departure would require refueling.”

    We in the industry call statements like this “hanger flying”. This author has no idea of what the fuel situation of this flight was. In this case, fuel remaining was on the totalizer, no calculations required..

  23. You can clear a plane to land while another plane is still on the runway as long as you plan to have the runway clear in time for the plane to land.
    Planes have minimum fuel they must carry. There’s a wide safety margin. Going below that margin doesn’t mean they would be down to zero
    If you don’t understand the basics of aviation, doesn’t report on it or at least don’t speculate.

  24. That controller should be suspended without pay and be retrained and warned if this happens again, you’re fired. Also, the FAA has a hard time finding people to do the ATC. Same thing with the airlines. DEI and WOKE. Not flying anytime soon.

  25. At the time Swissair aborted, there were probably a gaggle of departing aircraft holding on taxiway Kilo near the end of 4L waiting for takeoff clearance. Swissair probably wanted to “cut the line” by taking off at the K3 intersection. If he had to taxi all the way back to the end of 4L, it might’ve cost him another 15 minutes on the ground waiting for the flights ahead of him to take off and the incoming 4L arrivals to land.

  26. When you listen to any ATC videos out of JFK, as an international airline pilot of 25+ years, I’m always staggered by how fast the controllers speak. So unnecessary. They end up having to repeat instructions when pilots don’t understand the instructions or miss hear them. Not sure if they think they are being efficient, cool or professional, but if is, it achieves none of these. LHR is just as busy and yet the controllers speak more slowly and are easily understood. It’s not just JFK though. LAX is the same. It’s a bizarre US ATC phenomenon.

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