Fear of Taxiing

October 31, 2009

NWA (Delta) A-320

Of course, this week’s big story in the aviation business is the one about two Northwest pilots who managed to overfly their destination by 150 miles. The pilots said they lost track of time because they were in a “concentrated period of discussion” about the company’s pilot scheduling system. The plane they were flying, an Airbus A-320, can cover 150 miles in 20 minutes so, while the distance seems great, the amount of time during which the crew were less than diligent regarding their cockpit duties was relatively small.

We won’t defend these pilots. Their inattention is inexcusable and at least a temporary suspension of their licenses is appropriate. But no one on board the plane was in any real danger. The worst that likely happened is that passengers may have missed a few appointments or flight connections. Northwest 188 was in no danger of falling out of the sky.

A few days earlier in Los Angeles, a much more serious incident occurred, one which drew only fleeting media attention. Two aircraft, one departing on a runway, the other taxing toward the same runway, came within 82 feet of each other. Alarms sounded and an alert air traffic controller called a halt to what could have turned into a disaster.


Fire Engulfs 2 Boeing 747's at Tenerife, Canary Islands

The worst disaster in the history of commercial aviation occurred not in the air but on the ground. Two Boeing 747 passenger airplanes, one operated by KLM, the other by Pan Am collided on a runway in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, More than 580 people died; about 60 survived.

In terms of body count, the next big air disaster will involve aircraft on, or very near the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration is deeply concerned about this and has placed “runway incursions” (read “ground and low-altitude collision avoidance”) at the top of its air safety priorities.

It’s time to update your phobia to the 21st Century. Instead of Fear of Flying, make it Fear of Taxiing.