121pilot, our resident pilot on Live And Let’s Fly and captain for a major US airline, has graciously offered his thoughts on the near collision between an American Airlines 777 and a Delta Air Lines 737 at New York JFK.

Pilot Analysis: American – Delta JFK Runway Incident

I wanted to offer my thoughts about the American Airlines runway incursion incident that recently occurred.  First, I think it should be said that Matthew was spot on in his coverage of the response by the Allied Pilots Association (APA) to this matter. Let me unpack a bit why I say that.

Procedural Changes Are Commonplace

It should first be said that procedural changes via bulletins or info notices are the norm in the industry. So, when who calculates the takeoff data or who makes a PA announcement changes, we don’t normally get specific training on it. And times when we do, often that training is in the form of a quarterly distance learning that we complete on a company issued electronic device.

Sometimes these procedural changes go into effect before the training on them is even provided. Given that in cases like this, even when we do get “training,” it’s reading a document of some kind. What the AA pilots were dealing with wasn’t abnormal. Now it must be said that not being an AA pilot on the 777 I can’t speak directly to the scope of these changes.  But I can say that having to deal with a change of procedures should never have resulted in the aircraft going the wrong way and crossing the wrong runway, period. It’s simply not an excuse and APA looks foolish trying to provide it as one.

The reason unions and airlines fight over this stuff is a mix of pay and safety concerns. If the airline can simply issue a bulletin and be one with it then that’s not something that generates additional pay for the crews. But if the changes get incorporated into distance learning, then it becomes a paid event. The airline, of course, wants to do things as cheaply as possible and there are and have been times when that desire compromises safety.

There certainly are times that a change of procedures needs to be done via the distance learning environment so that crews have time to digest and mentally prepare for the changes before they happen. However, something like who makes a PA isn’t one of those and arguing that “training” was needed is just an attempt to make it a paid event.

Captain Should Have Better Watched Over First Officer

Second, let’s talk about flying with a new First Officer. Yes, I suspect that the FO was a bit overwhelmed in a new airplane with new procedures that she had never used before. But guess whose job it is to manage that? The Captain. If that FO was so overwhelmed that she lost situational awareness, then that is a serious failure of leadership on the Captain’s part. As the Captain it’s my job to not only be in command but also to manage all the elements of the flight to a successful conclusion.

That means that my pace and workflow MUST change when flying with a brand-new pilot in the right seat. I have to account for the fact she will need more time to do the same tasks compared to a seasoned veteran and I have to give her that time. I need to raise my own alertness level knowing that the new FO is likely to miss things and make mistakes. I don’t know what was going on in that cockpit but if it’s true that the FO was so overwhelmed that she lost awareness of where they were on the airport and where they were going then that’s on the Captain for not doing his job of properly managing the cockpit.

Insufficient Visibility? Nope.

Third, the claim that the Captain, FO, or relief pilot in the jumpseat lacked sufficient visibility to prevent this is utter hogwash. I’ve been on the jumpseat of a 777 more than once and there is more than enough visibility to prevent an incident like this.

I found a video of an aircraft taxing on B towards runway 31L in the dark at JFK. So while its not likely shot from a 777 it is still a good view of what that crew would have seen when taxiing. Notice a few things when you watch it (below). At the 29 second mark we see three amber lights that indicate where you should stop if instructed to hold short of the taxiway your about to cross.

Also notice the big K with an arrow painted on the ground. That’s taxiway K to your right and that’s the right turn the flight should have taken to reach 4L.

Next at about the 40 second point you see J approaching on your right which is where they turned when they crossed 4L in front of the departing Delta flight. That yellow sign that is blurred but otherwise easy to see is the marker with a big J on it for Juliet. Also notice all the amber lights that are they to warn you your about to cross a runway. They are unmistakable and there is no way that the any of the pilots in the cockpit that not would have been able to see them.

Humans Make Mistakes, But Unions Should Not Try To Excuse The Inexcusable

Let’s be honest about this: pilots are human and humans can and do make mistakes. I don’t know and won’t speculate on how this error happened. But I can, and will, say that it simply doesn’t happen without a major and unacceptable loss of situational awareness. This was a JFK based crew. They taxied planning to depart 4L. They should absolutely know where the runways are at JFK and how to get to them. APA would be far better served trying to figure out how a professional and experienced crew got so lost at their home airport that they crossed the wrong runway.

Unions do not serve their membership well when they say things that are demonstratably false. For example, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has touted the fact that there have been no fatal crashes of US registered passenger airliners since the 1500 hour rule was implemented after the Colgan Air crash. This of course ignores the fact that none of the crashes before it, including Colgan, had crews with less than 1500 hours. Given this obvious fact, ALPA looks stupid making the claim and only serves to hurt their credibility. There are certainly very sound reasons to require more than the 250 hours that used to be the minimum and ALPA would be far better served making that case.

APA in trying to excuse their pilots’ actions is only making itself look foolish and diminishing itself as a trustworthy source. APA would have been far better served simply stating this was a serious incident and like all such events there is always more than one cause; they were working hard to understand all the factors that led to this so lessons can be learned to prevent it from happening again.

Why Did The AA Crew Continue To London After Incident?

Finally, I want to address the crew’s decision to ultimately continue the flight to London. I know some may disagree but I find it completely plausible that the crew didn’t understand just how serious this incident was that night. Any runway incursion is a serious event and all involved treat them as such. It’s not the norm to return to the gate when you’ve had one. As such, I don’t see a reason for the crew to have gone back to the gate. I think even if they had, its unlikely there would have been drug testing. Unlikely that the CVR would have been preserved, in part because they would have been trying to re-crew the flight so it could operate. You must remember that that night no one except the Delta crew actually had any real idea of just how close it was, and they certainly weren’t talking to AA’s flight management.

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