Airplane passengers could have been caught in a deadly catastrophe at least twice during fiscal year 2017, which ended on September 30, says the preliminary report released by National Transportation Safety Board earlier this week.
The second one happened February 15, 2017, when a Compass Airlines plane was allowed to land on a runway where a Virgin America plane was about to take off. The Compass plane was successfully redirected after the automated system warned the operators of the conflict.
In October, another Air Canada flight reportedly missed repeated warnings from air traffic controllers to abort a landing at SFO when it was unclear if the designated runway had been cleared for landing. While the runway was, in fact, clear, the control tower repeated its instructions to lift off and go around at least six times, according to the airport's records.
The split-second reaction of tower controllers, who promptly issued a command to go around, had also saved a thousand lives during the July incident.
Both incidents happened during the night — just like July incident — and, thankfully, no injuries or damage were sustained. If the Air Canada pilot had hit the planes on the ground that July night there could be more than 1,000 human casualties, which air experts say would have been the greatest catastrophe in the history of aviation. The Air Canada flight flew at an incredibly low height of only 18 meters, barely enough to miss the grounded planes, media reported at the time.
All in all, the report says 1,704 incidents — known as "runway incursions" — when a vehicle, person or plane was on the runway without authorization, happened during FY 2017 across the US.
Two thirds of the incidents were blamed on pilots who acted without authorization from the control tower. The responsibility for the rest is shared by air traffic controllers as well as pedestrians and vehicle drivers.
The July incident prompted policy changes at SFO, including a requirement of two air controllers in the towers during late-night hours. The pilots are also required to use runway's advanced guidance system when a parallel runway is closed.