Future Tense

Why Planes Almost Never Crash on Runways

And what could go wrong to lead to a near miss.

A plane on a runway
Photo by Julio Rivera on Unsplash

The night of 2023’s first Friday the 13th, passengers on a Delta flight from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport were accelerating down the runway, about to go wheels-up, when the pilot slammed on the brakes. Passengers jolted forward as the plane lurched to a halt, 1,000 feet short of where a rogue Boeing 777 had just crossed their path.

The 777, an American Airlines flight, had taxied in a leisurely loop around the airport to get into position for takeoff, when it was supposed to hang a right. Instead, it continued ahead, crossing a runway where Delta Flight 1943 was already cleared for takeoff.

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“Shit! Fuck!” said one air traffic controller. “American 106 heavy, hold position!” said another. “Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance! Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance!” said the first.

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Runway run-ins and near misses are exceedingly rare—on the order of 1 in 8 million flights. On any given trip, a plane is about half as likely to have a serious runway incident as you are (in separate circumstances) to die in a shark attack.

There hasn’t been a deadly runway crash between commercial planes in decades; the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated just 56 commercial ground collisions and 19 near misses nationwide since 2008. (This excludes smaller snafus like an incident on Wednesday at JFK in which one JetBlue plane love-tapped another parked JetBlue plane while being towed out of the gate. This is approximately the airplane equivalent of bumping your own car in your own garage, and the NTSB will not investigate.)

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Runways are inherently dangerous places, since large vehicles are moving at high speeds. There are a number of factors that could have led to the high-speed Friday-the-13th near miss—as well as a few safety strategies that should help prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

I called a pilot friend, Wilbur Ressler, for his reaction to the freak-accident-that-wasn’t. “It was like a gut punch,” Ressler told me. Ressler, a recently retired United Airlines captain, described his reaction in a way that reminded me of my worst stress dreams. “Any time you approach a runway,” he said, “there’s a heightened sense of, ‘Was I cleared to cross?’ ”

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As they make their way around the airport, planes have to get permission from the air traffic control tower to cross any runways that might be between them and their takeoff spot. Pilots often double-check clearances, Ressler said, “because of this very fear.” In this case, the American pilot was cleared to cross a runway, just not that runway.

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Even though no collision occurred, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are both opening investigations.

In this case, a wide variety of factors could have contributed to the error, including unclear communication. In an abridged version of the audio circulating on Twitter, the American flight was told to hold short of Taxiway K (“Kilo” in radio operator parlance) until approved to cross a major runway.

The air traffic controller “doesn’t say ‘turn right on Kilo,’ ” Ressler said, “but that would have clarified a little bit.” The American pilot also appears to not have repeated instructions back completely, although Ressler said this is not unheard of in busy airports like JFK.

Standard communications between controllers and pilots are usually a major safeguard against near misses like this one. They took on a heightened sense of importance after the 1977 Tenerife disaster—a similar “runway incursion” in which the planes did crash, killing 583.

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In that crash, shoddy communication was partly to blame, along with confusing circumstances—a number of planes had been rerouted to a small airport following a bombing. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies have worked successfully to make fatal crashes vanishingly rare. Professor John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, says that communications improvements were one change.

Repeating commands fully is often mandatory. Word choice, Hansman said, can make a big difference, particularly in the context of radio commands. Sometimes, “the words are garbled, or they don’t come in clearly,” he said. In one case, a standard command called “position and hold” was changed to “line up and wait” when data analysis found that the original command was sometimes misunderstood.

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Still, Ressler said, any communications snafus aside, mistakes like the one on Friday the 13th “shouldn’t happen.” He pointed out that there were multiple pilots in the cockpit, each with well-marked maps of the runways visible on iPads on their side windows, where they could easily glance at them.

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While this was a somewhat tricky intersection—“there’s five or six different taxiways you can take at that point,” Ressler said—pilots typically have notoriously tricky spots marked on their maps and flagged in a briefing before landing. (The FAA does not have any such hot spots listed at JFK.)

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“Aviation incidents are typically caused by a complex interaction of multiple factors,” said Patricia Gilbert, America’s representative for the International Air Traffic Controllers’ Association, in an email. “Speculation on these factors does not contribute to improving safety.”

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Still, the internet speculated. Simple distraction is one possible factor, and YouTuber Thomas Juan Browne (@blancolirio), a former American Airlines pilot, noted a particularly ironic potential distraction.

A week before last Friday’s near miss, American Airlines updated their safety procedures—including new instructions about how to repeat back commands. At the time, the airline’s union complained that pilots had not been given enough training on the changes and that they were being disciplined for subsequent delays.

American Airlines and their pilots’ union both declined to comment on any relation between those changes and this incident, citing the FAA’s ongoing investigation.

While decades of measures keep near misses rare, future efforts could bring them down even further—starting with design changes that eliminate runway crossings. At JFK, the two runways involved in the mishap, 31L and 4L, are perpendicular. They sit on a grid of runways and taxiways each about as close together as streets in Manhattan.

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Many newer airports, Ressler said, are designed to avoid intersections entirely. “It’s possible to have a taxi route that avoids crossing runways,” he said, pointing to Washington Dulles International Airport in D.C. as an example; there, runways don’t cross at all, and taxiways look more like freeway onramps.

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In 2015, JFK did complete major safety and navigational upgrades to Runway 31L, the runway the American pilot should have crossed. That runway has red lights installed that automatically come on when it is in use. Runway 4L, the runway which the American pilot actually crossed, does not. Both runways, however, have yellow lights at the edges that typically signal when a runway is safe to cross.

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Besides basic design improvements, new technologies also help to bring down crashes. Tools like Airport Surface Detection System Model X, which helps air traffic controllers quickly spot potential runway conflicts by providing alerts, may have helped air traffic controllers prevent a close call from turning into a full disaster on Jan. 13.

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A seemingly basic technology has yet to be adopted widely: a Google Maps–style interface for airplanes. While commercial pilots do have airport maps, Hansman said, they cannot always see their own position or the direction their plane is traveling. While the airplane version of Google or Apple Maps does exist, he said, “it takes a long time for all that technology to flow into the fleet.” Many commercial airlines don’t use it yet, and American Airlines declined to comment on their gear.

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For some, the challenge of coordinating runway traffic raises a familiar question: Why not just automate the driving?

“Most of the flying done today on modern jet airplanes is all done by autopilot,” Hansman said, “except for takeoff and landing.” There are efforts underway to get FAA approval for completely autonomous cargo planes to operate alongside piloted aircraft, he said.

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Compared to self-driving cars, “It’s actually a much easier technical problem,” he said. Runways are much less chaotic than roads, because there are simply fewer vehicles and pedestrians to worry about. They are not not, Hansman said, “a Walmart parking lot with little toddlers running around.”

But automation doesn’t eliminate risks, it just changes them. “So what happens if GPS goes out and the airplane doesn’t know where it is, right?” he asked. “What happens if someone intentionally tries to hijack and spoof?”

Today, air traffic controllers communicate with pilots on open radio frequencies, and while non-controllers could potentially hop on and give directions, Hansman said, humans can usually screen out anything dubious. “There’s secondary, interpersonal clues that you can use,” he said. “If you do it automatically, now you have to put in that level of confirmation.”

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Even the Jan. 13 communication challenge would have an analog. “You have to make sure that the wrong path doesn’t get put into the automation,” Hansman said.

In the meantime, planes are not the only runway offender: Other vehicles also go rogue on runways.

Construction vehicles are one big risk, and improvements to address the effects of climate change—like pavement cracked from extreme weather—will mean more of them. “Airport construction increases as temperatures increase across the United States,” notes one FAA safety website. An FAA Vehicle Pedestrian Deviation Campaign is focused on updating best practices for airport vehicles.

All these efforts aside, it remains true that the vast majority of flights take off without a hitch. For anyone newly freaked out about flying, just remember: The lifetime odds of dying in a commercial plane crash are somewhere in the ballpark of 1 in a million (and are too low to even calculate accurately). The lifetime odds of dying in a car crash are about 1 in 101.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Correction: Jan. 26, 2023: The piece originally misstated that Flight AA106 was instructed to “hold on” Taxiway K before crossing a runway later identified in the story as 31R. It was told to “hold short of” that taxiway before crossing runway 31L. That runway had major improvements completed in 2015, not 2020.

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