NTSB Warns of ‘Potential Catastrophe’ of Taxiway Collisions

Sep 26, 2018

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Federal investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board released a new report Tuesday on a 2017 near-miss that almost ended in disaster at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

On July 7, 2017, the pilot of arriving Air Canada Flight 759 confused SFO’s taxiway, which had four other aircraft lined up on it, for the runway. The four aircraft waiting on the taxiway — two Boeing 787s, one Boeing 737 and one Airbus A340 — were filled with hundreds of passengers. According to the NTSB report, the Air Canada pilot didn’t realize his mistake and begin to pull up until he was just 60 feet above the ground hovering right above the aircraft on the ground, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Given the number of aircraft and passengers involved, the near-collision could have been one of the worst aviation accidents ever.

“I don’t want to sensationalize it, but this was a very close call,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said of the incident.

NTSB regulators said in their report that the pilots’ fatigue, along with other safety factors, caused the near-miss. The flight was arriving at SFO from Toronto (YYZ), and the hours the pilot had been flying would have exceeded US regulations for pilot fatigue, but were permissible under Canadian standards. One of SFO’s parallel runways had also been shutdown and darkened, the report says, leading the fatigued pilot to confuse the lighted taxiway for his runway.

“This is an incident which could have resulted in a potential catastrophe,” John DeLisi, director of the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, said. Tuesday’s report marks the first time the NTSB has released a full report on an incident that saw zero fatalities, according to the Chronicle.

Over the last three years, there have been several other similar near-collisions on taxiways, including mistaken landings at Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) and Pullman/Moscow Regional Airport (PUW), which is also in Washington State, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“There seems to be a significant number of taxiway events we didn’t use to see,” John Marshall, a former safety executive for Delta Air Lines told the Journal.

As part of its safety recommendations going forward, the NTSB recommended Tuesday to improve messages to pilots that runways are closed, changes to Canada’s pilot fatigue standards, updating airports’ surface-detection systems and installing equipment in aircraft to alert pilots when they are not properly aligned with their assigned runway.

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