The footage is dramatic. An airliner flutters down its final approach, seconds from touchdown, when a widebodied jet laden with hundreds of passengers suddenly pops out of nowhere and crosses the runway. We see the reaction of the startled pilot of the aircraft on final, goosing the throttles and pulling the nose up to avert certain disaster. Indeed, the HD images are so sharp that we can almost see the whites of the pilot’s eyes as he (or she) wrestles the controls, a bead of sweat rolling down their forehead.
It’s important to remember that video alone is rarely proof of anything. This footage was shot with a very long lens; the foreshortening effect is significant and will certainly make the aircraft appear much closer to each other than they really were.
AENA, the airport operator and Air Traffic Control provider at Barcelona, has released a statement saying that separation standards were not compromised and that the arriving aircraft, a Boeing 767-300 of Ukrainian airline UTAir, could have landed safely. Moreover, it stated that neither crew had filed a complaint.
The first inference of this statement is that far from blundering on to an active runway, the Argentinean A340 was in fact cleared across by air traffic control. If so, it’s technically incorrect to describe the incident as a runway ‘incursion’ — which would imply an unauthorised entry.
If it seems unusual that an aircraft would be cleared to cross an active runway with landing traffic on final approach, consider that at London Heathrow arrivals are often spaced no more than 2.5 nautical miles (just under three statute miles) apart. Aircraft routinely cross the runway in these gaps — which would put the next arriving aircraft at the very most 750 feet above the ground and sixty seconds from touchdown at the moment the clearance to cross was issued.
Secondly, whilst UTAir have since issued a statement to the effect that the captain of their Boeing 767 decided to go around because of the crossing A340, up until that point the idea that the two events witnessed on the video — the A340 crossing the runway and the B767 going around — were linked was pure speculation. Go-arounds happen every day for a wide range of reasons, and just because two events that appear to be linked are shown on a video, one should be careful to avoid adding two and two and coming up with five.
Even if the B767 captain did go around because of the crossing traffic, that in itself is no indication that anything dangerous or illegal happened, or that separation was eroded beyond the minimum requirements. All it means is that on that particular day and in those particular circumstances, the UTAir captain saw something he or she personally wasn’t happy with and exercised their right to go around.
AENA have announced that they are investigating the incident and with the benefit of the additional data they will have at their disposal — from radar records, ATC tapes and statements from the controllers and aircrews involved — more facts will undoubtedly be uncovered.
But as far as the coverage this video has received in the media is concerned — “near miss jet crash” seems to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. My personal view is that we’ve got some dramatic HD footage which looks great on the TV — but in the absence of any further facts, no real story. Runway crossings happen every day at airports around the world — at the busier ones, like Barcelona, Heathrow or Gatwick, spacing is tight and a few seconds here or there can make all the difference. Go-arounds, too, are commonplace and the safety-first approach in the event of anything unusual cropping up.
The media has a responsibility to report responsibly: headlines like the Mirror’s “Watch dramatic near-miss as two planes almost collide on runway at Barcelona airport” are inaccurate, over-excitable and unhelpful to anybody.