Two Planes Nearly Collide in Barcelona! Sort of, Not Really.

Barcelona Video Still

 

July 9, 2014

NO DOUBT SOME OF YOU, probably too many of you, have watched the video of the Boeing 767 and Airbus A340 nearly colliding, or so it seems, at the Barcelona airport last weekend. At last count, more than sixteen million people had seen the footage! Various news outlets featured the tape, tarting it up with words like “terrifying” and “near-disaster.” In case you missed it, it’s here.

Though if you don’t click over, well that’s okay too, because what you’re seeing is mostly a trick of perspective.

The planes involved were an Aerolineas Argentinas A340 and a UTair 767 (the latter is a Russian carrier based in Siberia). Apparently the Aerolineas Argentinas crew crossed the runway in error, which is serious. However the camera angle greatly exaggerates how close the two aircraft came to colliding. Reports say the planes were a full kilometer apart. (It’s similar to to the zillions of pictures online taken at San Francisco International and other airports with closely paired runways, where parallel arriving planes are made to look like they’re right on top of each other, when in fact they’re safely apart.)

Meanwhile the go-around performed by the 767 was, by itself, routine. I discuss go-arounds in chapter three of my book, and also here. The maneuver can feel abrupt and can be frightening to nervous flyers, but it’s perfectly natural for an airplane and not especially difficult for the pilots. You can see the 767 beginning the maneuver at roughly a hundred feet or so, meaning it was well prior to the runway threshold.

Now, so that I’m not accused of downplaying:

“Incursion” is the word we use to describe when an airplane crosses onto a runway or taxiway it shouldn’t be crossing onto. Although Barcelona wasn’t the near-catastrophe some have called it, I should note that worldwide the number of incursions has indeed been climbing. Not alarmingly so, but the trend is nonetheless worrying.

“I think the public fascination with the video is completely understandable,” says Christine Negroni, aviation journalist and blogger. “Downplaying the event is an example of a fallacious reasoning that judges the seriousness of an event by the outcome. As you well know, many factors come into play in aviation safety including luck. The Barcelona video highlights a real problem in aviation brought about by many factors. That it’s getting attention is not a bad thing, and if it gets the conversation going, that’s even better.”

To a large extent the incursions uptick is the result of increased air traffic and, at least in the United States, poor airport design. The number of commercial flights has more than doubled over the past quarter-century, without a corresponding overhaul or expansion of our airports.

As I write in chapter six of Cockpit Confidential, the problem isn’t always the volume of planes per se, but the congested environments in which many of them operate. La Guardia, Boston, and JFK are among airports that were laid out decades ago for a fraction of today’s capacity. Their crisscrossing runways and lacework taxiways are inherently more hazardous than the parallel and staggered layouts seen at newer airports. That does not imply that these locations are unsafe, but they present challenges both for crews and air traffic controllers, particularly during spells of low visibility.

The FAA has been working fast and furious on new programs and technologies to reduce the number of mistakes and/or mitigate the consequences when they occur. These include an upgrade of tarmac markings and mandatory anti-incursion training programs for pilots and controllers. Under testing are improved runway and taxiway lighting systems and an emerging, satellite-based technology known as Cockpit Display of Traffic Information (CDTI) that will provide pilots with a detailed view of surrounding traffic both aloft and during ground operations. And a growing number of airports are outfitted with sophisticated radar that tracks not only planes in the air, but those on runways and taxiways.

Those are all good ideas, but the FAA has a habit of over-engineering complicated fixes to simple problems. There will be no magic technological bullet. At heart this is a human factors issue. The agency’s most valuable contribution to the problem might be something it has already done: stirred up awareness. When it comes right down to it, the best way to prevent collisions is for pilots and controllers to always be conscious of their possibility.

Getting back to Barcelona, whether this was a crew error or an air traffic control mistake, we’re not yet sure. Pilots are never cleared to cross a runway at their own volition. You must receive specific permission from ATC. I don’t know if the A340 crossed on its own, sans permission, or was erroneously told to cross.  Either way, judging from the angle  seen in the video, the crew should have seen the 767 on short final approach and held its position.  A visual check prior to crossing a runway is taken for granted, regardless of any clearance from controllers.  Almost always in such situations, the pilots will announce, one to the other, “runway clear,” or some such confirmation.  It’s possible the Aerolineas pilots became distracted or otherwise busy with some task. That’s not an excuse, but perhaps it explains why they didn’t seem to notice the encroaching 767.

And yes, the clear weather was a fortunate factor. It’s hard to tell what would have happened had it been foggy and the the A340 invisible to the 767 pilots. It depends how far down the runway the A340 was crossing. You can’t really determine this from the video, but it appears the planes probably still would have missed each other. When visibility is down, you are relying pretty much entirely on ATC to ensure the runway is clear and that no traffic will cross. You cannot see the entire runway. In really heavy fog you might be able to see only a few hundred feet, if that. The only cockpit equipment that might indicate conflicting traffic is your TCAS, but that’s not what TCAS is intended for. More advanced technologies like the aforementioned CDTI would likely be more useful, but currently few aircraft are equipped.

As it happened, the weather was fine and the incident didn’t deserve the attention it got. What is it about airplanes that makes people so cuckoo? Purely in the interest of fairness, I expect all sixteen million people who have seen the YouTube video to read this post as well, in the process clicking on my Google ads, snapping up copies of my book, and making me rich. Yahoo, CNN, and all the other sources who picked up the story also will be linking to me.

 

In the meantime, if you really need to entertain yourself on YouTube, try these…

Senegal Layover, Part 1
Senegal Layover, Part 2
24 Hours in Cairo
Welcome to BKK
Best for Last

 

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38 Responses to “Two Planes Nearly Collide in Barcelona! Sort of, Not Really.”
  1. Fry says:

    “What is it about airplanes that makes people so cuckoo?”

    Most people entrust their lives to airplanes and the people who fly them without the slightest clue how they work. It’s a short walk from there irrational fear.

  2. David says:

    Perhaps, but I note that at 200 kph (the low end of the 767′s landing speed), it will cover that kilometer in less than 20 seconds. That’s pretty close.

    • Patrick says:

      In this context, twenty seconds is actually pretty long.

      • David says:

        Twenty seconds is never pretty long.

        • Simon says:

          Patrick is absolutely right. 20 seconds is the time it takes that A340 to cross that runway about four times. Go ahead and count the second in the video. The A340 was already half across. It would have taken another two-three seconds to clear. The engines on the 767 need to spool up during TO/GA and it will take roughly 10 seconds until a positive climb rate is achieved. That would still leave a full seven seconds.

          None of that is really alarming. What’s reason for concern is why the incursion happened. And what would have happened in bad visibility. Exactly the things Patrick pointed out in his calm and reasoned piece. You’d be well advised to take a deep breath and then read it again.

        • Eirik says:

          That totally depends on the situation and circumstances.
          An airplane crossing the runway 20 seconds before another one comes in for landing is in fact a lot of time in todays busy airports.
          Now, if you do a Jack Bauer and manage to prevent a nuke going off when its 20 seconds left on the timer, thats something else.

      • David says:

        In a less flippant response, your argument boils down to the idea that, while current airport facilities are overloaded, badly designed for their current loads, a source of great concern for the FAA, airlines, and pilots, *this* particular incident was not that worrisome.

        Forgive me if I’m not that comforted.

  3. Ian says:

    While this incident was averted fairly easily, that’s partly due to it happening during a clear, sunny day, no? What would have happened if it had been at night, and raining or foggy? Isn’t that basically what happened at Tenerife?

  4. Dave M. says:

    given that “an abundance of caution” seems to be (to my eyes, at least) the guiding sentiment of the logistics of commercial flight*, is this incident not, at the very least, a violation of established tolerances? Isn’t “near-miss” a relative statement is what i mean, perhaps?

    (*redundant systems, tsa hoops to jump through, arriving 2 hours before your flight etc.)

    YES – agree that the media will happily overstate the severity and/or danger of the situation to boost ratings/clicks.

    NO – disagree that consumer anxiety related to the complexities of managing air traffic, given the realities, as you state, of rapid expansion with no correlating expansion of the facilities, qualifies as “cuckoo.” Even taking in to account the extent to which those fears are stoked by irresponsible reporting.

    ALL THAT SAID – your column is an invaluable resource and remains my first stop for trustworthy analysis of the “air-travel story-du-jour.”

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks for reading Dave, and for leaving the comment.

      Like I said, what happened at BCN was serious. Just not oh-my-god-holy-shit serious. And I’m not talking about “consumer anxiety.” I’m talking about people (media) who get hysterical over pretty much any minor, often totally innocuous occurrence. This one was a bit more than that, but it hardly mattered: a simple compressor stall and the TV cameras are there.

  5. nycman says:

    Patrick, though you’ve touched on the go around aspect, I was hoping you’d comment on pilot procedures when crossing runways. Look both ways? Check with ATC? If you realize you’ve made a mistake, can you communicate with other pilots, or have to go through ATC? When landing, do the pilots have any equipment to detect runway incursions, or is it all just visual? By the time you touch down, how far can you see in bad weather? Can you see down the whole runway even in bad weather?

  6. Siegfried says:

    While I agree with Patrick that the media generally gets overblown with any air travel related incident, I would still classify this one as pretty serious. The 767 was approximately 200 ft AGL and 1.7 nm away from the A340 so even if they had landed it would probably have worked out but the fact that an aircraft had been given clearance to cross a runway after another had been given landing clearance is a bit worrying. I think the decision of the Russian pilot to go around was the right one.

    Otherwise I agree with nycman, it would be really interesting to know what you can do as a pilot when you are in in a similar situation like the Argentinians.

  7. Rod says:

    “It would be really interesting to know what you can do as a pilot when you are in in a similar situation like the Argentinians.”

    At the risk of a flip response: look out the window?

    This was one of many thousands of potential car-rail-boat-airplane-unicycle accidents that ultimately didn’t happen. The chips weren’t down. One fine day they will be. Which is why — while it may not warrant sensationalist coverage — the incident should be thoroughly investigated and the results followed up on.

    • Siegfried says:

      Looking out of the window would surely have been a very good plan prior to crossing the hold-short line.

      Alas, my question was rather aimed at what to do when you are already on the runway and find yourself in a situation similar to this one.

  8. Eirik says:

    This was a mishap, but the planes were not that close to collide at all. Like already pointed out above, the B767 still had 7-8 seconds before touch down, then another 8-10 seconds before reaching the point where the A340 crossed. It may not sound like a whole lot of time, but more than enough to avoid collision.

    The more serious issue, in my point of view, is this;
    - Did the A340 pilot even know where the B767 was?
    If not, its a serious error made by those pilots, no matter what the reason was (distraction, bad day etc…)

    If they did know about the B767 and still made the decision to cross the runway, one must assume they were sure to make it over in time. Maybe the B767 pilots did not know their intentions and therefor made the decision to go around. Still a mishap, but then at least both crews were aware of the situation and had it under control.

    When it comes to all the “what if`s” it reminds me of the “Final Destination” movies. Which are just movies, its not like destiny is haunting you 24/7 until it gets you.
    In other words, saying “what if this was at night or in bad weather?”. It was not. It was at daytime in good weather.

    First of all, those two planes would not even be there at night. They were scheduled to land/take-off when they did and would be long gone by night.

    And its not a given that this would have happened in bad weather/thick fog since that require different safety procedures. If the visibility was bad, the ATC would have probably (hopefully) told the A340 to hold.

    Bottom line; one can not take a story and put that in a completely different context and say “what if”. If happened right there and then, with those crews, at daytime and good weather. Period.

    Lets just hope both crews knew about each others whereabouts and that the B767 pilots just wanted to stay on the safe side, rather than “assuming” the A340 would be gone and go for the landing.

    • Rod says:

      “If they did know about the B767 and still made the decision to cross the runway, one must assume they were sure to make it over in time. Maybe the B767 pilots did not know their intentions and therefor made the decision to go around.”

      Seems to me you’re leaving the controller(s) out of this. The 340 knew about the 767 IF the controller told them, IF their radio was working and IF they were listening. I’m sure (well, I hope…) the controller didn’t clear them to cross an active runway “if you figure you can make it OK”.

      Likewise, I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that the B767 crew heard a controller clear the 340 to cross in front of them if they were on the same frequency (though if that happened, I’m shocked and appalled). Hearing this alarming news, the 767 began a go-around.

      Either way, and no matter how many seconds separated them from disaster, the 767 got a windshield full of A340 and did what it had to do.

      The question remains Why.

      • Eirik says:

        True. Question remains why.
        B767 and A340 should be on same freq as they would both be handled by ATCT. I guess?

        • Siegfried says:

          If I am not totally wrong with the procedures, the A340 should have been on “ground”, the B767 on “tower” so those would be two different frequencies.

          • Patrick says:

            Not necessarily. At many airports only tower frequencies handle active runway crossings. Pilots will switch from ground to tower for permission to cross.

          • Simon says:

            It has been confirmed they were on different frequencies.

            Patrick, how was your trip to EKCH? Can we expect a travel report or airport critique?

            Disclaimer: as somebody who uses EKCH almost weekly, I’m not a big fan of the airport (read: shopping mall) at all. The city on the hand is very nice.

          • Patrick says:

            Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport always gets rave reviews for some reason. I find it horribly claustrophobic and overcrowded.

          • Simon says:

            Agree 100%.

            What kind of imbecile designs a gate with 40 seats when said gate is used to board aircraft with 190 seats? :))

        • Simon says:

          Even if they were on the same frequencies, who’s to say they understood each other? If controllers were communicating with the Argentinians in Spanish, would the Russian crew have understood any of that?

          It’s one of these things I’ll never understand. Per ICAO regulations it’s perfectly legal for a Spanish ATCO and a Spanish speaking crew to communicate in Spanish. Same goes for French, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese because these are the officially sanctioned lCAO languages besides English. I suppose the argument is that they can understand each other better in their native language and that that would make it safer.

          Of course what it totally fails to acknowledge is that that is not true for everybody on that frequency. Basically, ICAO is allowing for a reduced situational awareness because it tacitly assumes not everybody will always be able to follow everything being transmitted on a frequency. Personally, despite being somebody who’s fluent in 4 languages and loves language diversity, I think this is a major mistake. IMHO safety is being traded off for convenience/laziness.

  9. Tod Davis says:

    Patrick.

    Totally off topic, i think that there is another airline name to ad to your list of poorly named airlines. I believe there is an airline in China named ‘okay airways’…. hmm?
    Anyway back on topic, i was waiting for your sensible response to this story and you didn’t disappoint.

  10. Marshall says:

    I’d bet that the CA and/or the FO aboard the 767 had the A340 in sight a mile out and were thinking, “Please don’t try to cross, please don’t try to cross…DAMN IT, go around.” Probably almost a zero percent chance of a collision under those visual conditions. My only question is: how do the 767 pilots explain that over the PA? Do you tell your pax that another plane taxied onto the runway? Or say another plane was “lingering” on the runway? Or do you make up a boring reason for the go around (i.e. lie about it)?

    • Simon says:

      No reason to lie about it. I would suspect something along the lines of.

      Well… um… folks… some information from the flight deck. As you probably noticed… uhm… we had to abort our landing because the runway wasn’t quite ready for us yet. The folks down there are … uh … clearing it up for us as we speak. Nothing … uhm … unusual. So we … uuhh … should have you on the ground shortly. Thanks for your … uhhh … understanding.

    • Jeff Latten says:

      Marshall, I think you’ve got it right. There’s no way the crew of the landing 767 could not see the 340 on the edge of the runway and no doubt one or all of them were saying “please don’t do that” or words to that effect, as you point out. The media distortion resulting from the perspective issue was outrageous and just put more fear into an already over-hyped public. All that time could have been spent on some real issue, like the Keystone Pipeline debacle.

      So the question seems to be, who on the 340 made the decision to cross the active, and to a lesser extent, was that person erroneously cleared by a controller unaware of the inbound 767?

      I don’t believe any crew on the 340 would intentionally decide to ‘run that yellow light’ as you might in a car. If they were aware of the inbound 767, then it’s way too risky and I’ve never known any pilot, and I’ve known a few, who would make a chancy move like that, especially with passengers aboard. It’s just not in the DNA of professional or even amateur pilots unless they have a death wish.

      But even if they got a clearance that was incorrect, they still should have looked and they’d have seen the inbound 767 and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It sounds like there’s enough blame to cover both the crew and possibly ground control as well. It’s really not much different than when you are driving and you come to a stop sign at an intersection with a main road. Even though you make a full stop, you still have to look and make sure no other car is approaching from either direction. It’s called “right of way” and common sense would tell you it should be in play in the cockpit, clearance or no clearance.

      My guess, and I’m sure Patrick can answer this, is that inbound traffic probably has right of way, or whatever the FAA calls it, over anything on the ground, and it would seem just the most common sense for someone/anyone in a cockpit still on the ground to be somewhat alert for inbound as they approach an active runway, whether just crossing or getting in line for departure. Sounds like the whole crew was asleep at the switch. Kind of reminiscent of the Asiana incident at SFO, where all the warnings were ignored.

  11. mad dog says:

    Not a near-miss at all!!

    If anything it was a near-hit, which is a miss, and it wasn’t even that this time.

    If they HAD collided THEN you would have had a near-miss, which is a hit! :-)

    Thanks to the genius of the late, great George Carlin.

    See his standup bit about this here:

    http://www.tubechop.com/watch/3332664

  12. m says:

    What’s the background on the video? How/Why is it that a camera was in position to get the video?

  13. seth says:

    A question about the “go around” and the order in which things are done. I noticed in the video that the landing plane was already moving up and away from the runway for a few seconds before the landing gear was retracted. I’m wondering what the order of operations during a routine go around. You obviously need to quickly call for more power and lift but when to the wheels get retracted. I’d think you’d want the landing gear up ASAP but the list of things to do is probably very long.

  14. Eirik says:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2684294/Boeing-pilot-reveals-terrifying-moment-forced-abort-landing-avoid-collision-Barcelona-airport.html

    Interesting read from the Russian Captain.
    In short; The A340 was told to hold until the B767 had landed. The A340 pilot confirmed, but still decided to cross the runway. Maybe he misunderstood the message and thought he was cleared to cross. Why else would he do it?

    • Jeff Latten says:

      Well, that answers a big question. The 340 crew knew there was inbound traffic and were told to wait until it landed before crossing, and they just disobeyed that completely. Someone, maybe a few someones needs to be indicted here…this kind of risk-taking is criminal.

  15. bravazon says:

    That’s why we train go around in any conditions, on the sim.

  16. jdiamjr says:

    Has the FAA considered the use of traffic signals controlled by ground control at runway intersections to supplement their radio instructions? It would help avoid confusion over radio communications (especially if English is not the primary language of the crew or ATC) and is simple to understand as all pilots are also drivers who are familiar with traffic signals.

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