Near-disaster at JFK Airport: Swiss pilots’ presence of mind prevents accident

Airbus A330-300 (Photo: Pixabay).
Airbus A330-300 (Photo: Pixabay).

Near-disaster at JFK Airport: Swiss pilots’ presence of mind prevents accident

Airbus A330-300 (Photo: Pixabay).
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On April 17, 2024, a potentially fatal collision was averted at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York thanks to the quick reaction of the pilots of Swiss 17. The Swiss International Air Lines Airbus A330-300, which was scheduled to fly to Zurich, was cleared for takeoff while four other aircraft were crossing the runway at the same time. Thanks to a prudent aborted takeoff, the pilots avoided a catastrophe.

At 16:45:47, the tower gave Swiss 17 clearance to take off. But one second later, another air traffic controller allowed Delta 29, a Boeing 767-400 that had just landed from Nice, to cross runway 4L. Within the next eleven seconds, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, an Airbus A220-300 and an Embraer E175 were also given permission to cross the active runway. The pilots of Swiss 17, who recognized this dangerous situation, immediately aborted the takeoff and safely braked the Airbus from a speed of 50 knots. The closest distance to the first crossing aircraft was about 1,4 kilometers.

Investigations

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) broke down the incident in detail. The investigation found that at the time of the incident, ten air traffic controllers, two trainees and one supervisor were working in the tower, which is within guidelines for that shift. The report from the Swiss Transportation Safety Investigation Board (STSB) confirmed the seriousness of the incident.

The incident with Swiss 17 is one of a series of similar events at US airports. In January 2023, Delta pilots in New York prevented an impending collision with an American Airlines Boeing 737-900 on the same runway by applying the emergency brakes on their Boeing 777-200ER.

Security measures and technical monitoring

In response to such incidents, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has equipped 35 major US airports with the Advanced Surface Movement Guidance and Control System (ASDE-X). This system continuously monitors radar, satellite and multilateration data and alerts air traffic controllers to possible conflicts on the runway and taxiway system.

Despite the installation of ASDE-X at JFK Airport, the system did not raise an alarm during the Swiss 17 incident. According to the NTSB, this was because Swiss 17 never reached the acceleration and speed thresholds that would have signaled to the system that the aircraft was in the takeoff roll.

International reactions and further developments

The international aviation community is following these incidents with concern. Aviation safety experts stress the need for continuous improvements in technical monitoring and air traffic controller training to avoid such dangerous situations. Pilot associations praise the quick reaction of the Swiss pilots, who were able to avert a potential catastrophe through their professionalism and presence of mind.

In addition to technical solutions, organizational measures are also being discussed. These include stricter protocols for communication between air traffic controllers and pilots and improved coordination mechanisms within the tower. Another suggestion is to regularly conduct safety training and simulations to better prepare air traffic controllers and pilots for unexpected situations.

The incident at JFK Airport underlines the critical importance of vigilance and rapid response in air traffic. Thanks to the prudent actions of the Swiss pilots, a possible collision was avoided. It is hoped that the ongoing investigations and the implementation of further safety measures will help to minimize the frequency of such dangerous situations and further improve air traffic safety.

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Editor of this article:

Amely Mizzi is Executive Assistant at Aviation Direct Malta in San Pawl il-Baħar. She previously worked in the Aircraft and Vessel Financing division at a banking group. She is considered a linguistic talent and speaks seven languages ​​fluently. She prefers to spend her free time in Austria on the ski slopes and in summer on Mediterranean beaches, practically on her doorstep in Gozo.
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About the editor

Amely Mizzi is Executive Assistant at Aviation Direct Malta in San Pawl il-Baħar. She previously worked in the Aircraft and Vessel Financing division at a banking group. She is considered a linguistic talent and speaks seven languages ​​fluently. She prefers to spend her free time in Austria on the ski slopes and in summer on Mediterranean beaches, practically on her doorstep in Gozo.
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