A close encounter at Kennedy International Airport on Friday night in which an American Airlines flight crossed a runway in front of an oncoming Delta Air Lines flight appeared to have occurred when the American Airlines pilots misunderstood instructions from air traffic controllers, radar records and recordings of those conversations performance.
Delta’s Flight 1943, bound for the Dominican Republic, had to abort takeoff. None of the 145 passengers were injured.
American Airlines Flight 106, bound for London with 137 passengers on board, was proceeding along a taxiway around 8:45 p.m. when it came close to a point where two runways intersect at right angles, according to Ross Feinstein, a former spokesman for both Transportation. Security Administration and American Airlines who said he had reviewed publicly available radar and footage.
The Delta aircraft was waiting to take off on Runway 4 Left, which is intersected by Runway 31 Left.
An air traffic controller can be heard asking the American plane, a Boeing 777, to “cross runway 31 left,” which would require it to turn right before coming around to line up for departure on runway 4 left behind the Delta plane.
The American pilot confirms: “Cross 31 Left.”
Another air traffic controller tells the Delta plane, a Boeing 737, that it is cleared for takeoff. The Delta pilot confirms, “Clear for takeoff, runway 4 left, Delta 1943.”
But the American plane, instead of turning right to cross Runway 31 to the left, jogged to the left and then to the right and continued straight across Runway 4 to the left as the Delta plane began to take off, the radar shows, according to Mr. Feinstein.
In an audio excerpt, an air traffic controller can be heard say a four letter word. A controller orders the American plane: “Hold position!” and another controller quickly says twice, “Delta 1943, abort takeoff clearance!”
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement Sunday that the Delta plane came to a “safe” stop about 1,000 feet from where the American plane had crossed the runway.
In the audio recordings, after the Delta pilot confirms that he is canceling takeoff, a Kennedy controller tells the American pilots, “possible pilot anomaly.”
Trying to understand what happened, one of the American pilots asks the tower, “The last clearance we got, we were cleared to cross, is that correct?”
The controller responds that the US aircraft was indeed cleared to cross, but it was cleared to cross runway 31 left and proceed to the start of runway 4 left for departure, instead of crossing 4 left and heading to the start of 31 left.
“You were leaving Runway 4 to the left,” says the controller. “You’re currently 31 short.”
The FAA said the disaster that unfolded — and was averted — was detected with the help of a system that detects and displays the movements of aircraft and vehicles on runways and taxiways at Kennedy and about three dozen other U.S. airports, using radar and motion sensors.
It declined to provide more details about the episode, which is unrelated to a nationwide problem two days earlier in which thousands of flights were delayed after a system the FAA uses to send safety alerts to pilots went down.
After canceling departure, the Delta flight returned to the gate, passengers disembarked and the flight was delayed overnight, Delta said. “The safety of our customers and crew is always Delta’s No. 1 priority,” the airline said in a statement Sunday. “We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and delay to their journeys.”
The airline declined to comment Sunday, saying in an email it would defer to the FAA
The American plane proceeded to Heathrow Airport. It arrived 13 minutes early.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday it had launched an investigation and would take statements from flight crews, gather flight registration information and look at air traffic control data and expected to issue a preliminary report in several weeks.
Flight log information from the American Airlines cockpit may not be available: the devices retain only two hours of recording, and the flight from New York to London takes seven hours. The safety board has urged the FAA for years to require 25-hour recording capability, noting in a 2018 report that “unfortunately, recent safety investigations have been hindered because relevant portions of the recordings were overwritten.”
Mr. Feinstein noted that federal regulations require aircraft operators to notify the safety board immediately in the event of a “runway incursion” like the one that occurred Friday.
“Probably part of the investigation that the NTSB will look at is why the plane decided to go and if the appropriate notifications took place,” he said.
Mr. Feinstein said Friday’s incident was the closest such call he knew of at a U.S. airport since 2017, when an Air Canada jet landing in San Francisco came close to hitting a plane on the ground.
“This is very unusual in the United States,” he said, “but the reason it’s taken so seriously is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”