2015-01-17: Transcript for the Near-Collision at KJFK

The following transcript is based on the archived ATC recording at LiveATC.net: KJFK 1-18-2015 0300-0330Z. The airline codes are: BWA (Caribbean Airlines); JBU (JetBlue); AZA (Alitalia); UAE (Emirates); AAL (American); VRD (‘Redwoods’, aka Virgin America); AMX (Aeromexico); UAL (United). Flights below are color- coded: red (arrival) and green (departure).

The arrival sequence was: AMX404 — VRD56 — BWA526 — AAL32 — JBU302. ATC applied positive control on both VRD56 and AAL32, issuing: “…right Juliet, hold short of two-two-right, remain this frequency….” Importantly, this clearance was NOT issued to BWA526. Also, a full five minutes passed between the time ATC issued the ‘hold short 22R’ to VRD56 and then AAL32; thus, the arrival spacing was averaging one per 2.5 minutes, which is a relatively calm arrival rate.

The departure sequence was: JBU1337 — AZA611 — UAE206 — JBU1295. For each departure, ATC had the aircraft ‘line up and wait’ on the runway, then issued a takeoff clearance after the previous arrival had finished taxiing across the runway downfield. Again, at the time the controller cleared JBU1295 for takeoff, he had done nothing to ensure BWA526 would hold short of the same runway.

Additionally, there is no evidence that the controller needed to be in any hurry. AMX404 was crossed prior to takeoff clearance for UAE206 (at time 27:35). Then, it was a full two minutes later, when VRD56 was crossed prior to takeoff clearance for JBU1295 (at time 29:41). And notice on the transcript that, immediately after clearing JBU1295 for takeoff, the controller does NOT focus on BWA526; instead, he diverts his attention to a nonessential flight, a VFR Cessna overflight whom he tells to maintain at or below just 500-feet altitude under departing jets (an approval that in itself is arguably unsafe).

So, what happened?

This appears to be a classic same-runway controller error, where the controller simply ‘temporarily forgot’ about one of his aircraft. Happens all the time. This is why controllers are trained to scan all the time, and this is also why it is valuable to have more than one controller watching the runway areas. Had this controller been in training, his instructor would have written him up for a ‘POSNI’ (Positive Separation not Insured). Then, again, the instructor’s job is to make sure situations like this never happen, so it might also have been swept under the rug….

Of course, the BWA56 flight crew was a major part of this error, too. Most pilots would have stopped short of the runway and radioed ATC advising they were holding short, and asking for further instructions. But, it is up to the controller to ‘control’ the traffic, by issuing crisp and timely clearances that keep the aircraft flowing and out of trouble. This controller, on this particular Saturday night, was surprisingly sloppy with his phraseology, and it came back to bite him.

It is worth saying again: this sort of incident happens all the time, where a controller temporarily spaces on one aircraft. This latest incident is just the ‘big league’ version of a very similar scenario, the 7/25/2010 Controller Error at KCMA. That, too, was swept under the rug. In fact, the Camarillo controller error was concealed by the tower supervisor, then the tower manager, then the hub management, then the regional QA people, and eventually even by Clay Foushee and Tony Ferrante at FAA Headquarters.

ANALYSIS: 2015-01-17.. Near Collision at JFK Airport

A potential runway collision at JFK Airport [KJFK] was averted when pilots aborted a takeoff clearance off Runway 22R while a Boeing 737 arrival started to cross the runway downfield. The departure, JetBlue Flight 1295, an Airbus A320 to Austin [KAUS], had already accelerated when the pilots saw an aircraft crossing ahead, so they pulled power and braked to avoid an impact.20150117.. [KJFK] AprtDgm portion showing RWY incursionThe departure was able to stop and exit at Taxiway Golf (green, in the airport diagram above), well short of Taxiway Juliet where the runway incursion had crossed (red, in the airport diagram above). Here’s an excerpt from a news article:

“We were heading full speed down the runway, and the plane came to a screeching stop,” says passenger Brandon Card.
“Caribbean Airlines Flight 526 was right in the path of JetBlue’s plane.
“The people came on the intercom and said ‘yeah, we almost collided with another plane,” said passenger Krista Hollis, “when they said that collision would have been inevitable if we hadn’t braked, I was like, ‘what?!’”

20150117.. BWA526, SYJC (runway incursion acft) The B737, Caribbean Airlines Flight 526 [BWA526] had landed on Runway 22L roughly a minute earlier, after a 4.5 hour flight from the main airport in Georgetown, Guyana. After landing, the flight would normally be given instructions to exit the runway, then hold short of the other runway. It appears this did not happen. Reportedly, shortly after clearing the JetBlue departure for takeoff, the controller observed the runway incursion developing and asked the Caribbean flight if he was stopping … while the JetBlue was still accelerating.

Flightaware data indicates that the JetBlue flight was departing roughly 90-minutes late when they aborted their takeoff. The actual departure then delayed for more than two additional hours, likely to refuel and possibly to have their mechanics do an inspection of the brakes. Passengers who were expecting to arrival at 11:43PM instead arrived in Austin at 3:27AM.

How Did This Happen?

The incident recording is archived at LiveATC.net (see: KJFK 0300-0330Z; BWA526 reports on frequency at 24:38). The controller is not too busy, and is working a steady flow of departures off Runway 22R and arrivals to Runway 22L. There is no complexity. He puts each departure onto the runway to ‘line up and wait’, then clears each for takeoff once the preceding departure is far enough out and once the arrivals have all been crossed or held short of the runway. In the case of BWA526, it appears the controller never issued any hold-short or taxi instructions. So, it was a risky clearance, for him to clear JetBlue for takeoff, having not yet talked to BWA526 to ensure the runway was protected. A closer analysis will follow, once a transcript is made.