Federal air-accident investigators recommended an array of enhanced safety systems in cockpits and on the ground to reduce hazards of airliners mistakenly landing on taxiways instead of designated runways, an increasingly dangerous trend across U.S. airports.
Tuesday's action by the National Transportation Safety Board was prompted by a July 2017 near-collision involving a landing Air Canada jet that flew roughly a dozen feet above the tail of another airliner waiting to take off from San Francisco International Airport.
“We couldn't have gotten literally, or figuratively, any closer to having a major disaster,” Bruce Landsberg, the safety board's vice chairman, said during the hearing that highlighted the escalating dangers of such approach-andlanding errors.
Pilots of the Air Canada Airbus A320 were fatigued, failed to properly prepare for the descent and mistakenly continued toward the taxiway intended for planes preparing for departures, despite concerns about potential lights in their path, according to the NTSB. The jet started climbing seconds before touchdown, flying over four airliners lined up on the same taxiway filled with passengers and tons of fuel.
Additionally, the pilots had received warnings in computer messages that one of two parallel runways was temporarily closed.
In light of busy airspace and congested airports, the incident “should drive home the point just how costly a mistake can be,” said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the safety board.
The action was prompted by a near-collision involving an Air Canada jet.
Although neither the flight crew nor the lone air-traffic controller working in the airport tower around midnight immediately realized how close the aircraft came to each other, since then the event has sparked intense concern among airlines, regulators and outside safety experts. The close call already has served as a catalyst for wide-ranging changes, from revised staffing of airport towers to modification of ground radar systems to a national safety summit two months ago about the general hazard.
The safety board has no authority to mandate regulatory changes. But leading up to Tuesday's session, the Federal Aviation Administration indicated it was ready to assess the technical and economic feasibility of requiring airborne systems capable of warning pilots when their plane is descending to land on a taxiway.
“I'm optimistic someone is going to jump on it” and implement a low-cost cockpit solution, Mr. Sumwalt said.
Some of the latest recommendations were rejected years ago by the FAA, but technical advances, such as portable laptops used to supplement traditional cockpit systems, could provide new impetus for some proposed changes.
The safety board unanimously determined the Air Canada incident was caused by a combination of cockpit fatigue — the captain hadn't slept for 19 hours — and flight crew slip-ups in properly briefing and sharing responsibilities during the visual approach.
Other factors, according to the final report, were pilot failures to use an available instrument- landing system as a safety backup, and inadequate Canadian government rules related to pilot duty hours and guaranteed rest periods.
In one of the broadest recommendations, the NTSB called on the FAA to revamp and simplify federal notices alerting all pilots about runway hazards, temporarily closed strips or other specific airport hazards.
Despite receiving such warnings about the status of San Francisco's runways, the Air Canada pilots failed to recognize the situation and were confused by the lights they saw.
BY ANDY PASZTOR