NTSB documents say distraction, low visibility played part in near-collision at JFK Airport in 2023

ByPete Muntean and Gregory Wallace, CNNWire
Tuesday, January 30, 2024
Distraction and visibility played a part in JFK near-collision: NTSB
New documents from the NTSB say distraction and low visibility were factors in the near-collision between a Delta and American Airlines plane last January.

NEW YORK -- The pilots of an American Airlines flight were distracted by paperwork when they erroneously taxied into the path of a departing Delta flight, setting off alarms in the control tower at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and prompting an urgent plea to "cancel takeoff clearance" from the air traffic controller.

"My hands are shaking, I'm in shock, like -- what the f***, what just happened," the controller credited with preventing a catastrophic collision told investigators after the incident.

The gripping new details of the close call the night of January 13, 2023 are contained in National Transportation Safety Board documents released Monday.

The case was the first in a series of serious near-collisions involving commercial and noncommercial flights on or near the runways of major US airports. In 2023, the NTSB started investigations of more than seven such cases, known formally as runway incursions. In the JFK incident, the NTSB says the two planes came within 1,400 feet of colliding.

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In the cockpit of the American Airlines Boeing 777 - carrying 149 people bound for London - the crew reported being inundated with weather bulletins and paperwork issues, according to the just-released NTSB documents. There was a third pilot in the cockpit who was helping, so the captain decided against parking the aircraft while that last-minute work was underway.

The seasoned captain - with more than 20,000 hours of flight experience - told investigators that air traffic controllers revised their instructions and ordered the plane to depart from a different runway. But while taxing, he "started thinking about my original" instructions and mistakenly taxied the plane across JFK's runway 4 Left.

He insisted to investigators he turned on extra lighting around the aircraft before entering the runway, something he typically did in dark conditions, a transcript of his interview shows.

The crew of the Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 - preparing to depart with 159 people onboard - did not even see the larger American plane crossing in front of its path. But the captain told investigators he heard the urgent instruction from air traffic controllers to abort the takeoff run.

"Due to the extreme darkness of the evening, it was not until we began decelerating that I saw the American Airlines 777 crossing the runway in front of us," the Delta captain wrote in a statement.

When the American captain parked the plane on the other side of the runway and talked with air traffic controllers, he didn't realize how close he had come to disaster.

"I still thought I was in the right, that somehow, you know, somebody else messed up," the captain told NTSB investigators in a transcribed interview. "From where we were sitting looking back, it didn't look like we were close to anybody at all. So I didn't know there was anybody taking off on that runway."

The NTSB interviewed four air traffic controllers in the tower cab the night of the incident. As automated collision warning alarms sounded in the tower, the tower supervisor shouted to the controller making radio transmissions to tell the Delta flight to "cancel takeoff clearance," one controller told investigators.

"We had a really good team upstairs that night," said the controller credited with making the fateful abort transmission, "a really good team."

The crew of the American Airlines flight told investigators in separate interviews that lights warning them against crossing the runway did not turn on until after they entered the runway. CNN reported soon after the incident that airport employees went out to check the lights immediately after the incident and found them in working order.

When the lights turned on red, "we realized something wasn't right," the American flight's first officer said in an interview.

The first officer told investigators while the captain taxied, she was busy handling an unusually large number of weather-related messages from company dispatchers, as well as a new procedure that required she make an announcement to passengers before takeoff.

"It was very unusual," she said of the heavy volume of weather messages. "I had never seen that before."