A communication breakdown is to blame for an incident two years ago when an Alaska Airlines jet carrying 58 people nearly collided with a snowplow at the Juneau Airport, according to a final report by federal investigators.
If the jet's crew, the Federal Aviation Administration and the snowplow workers had done a better job talking to each other, the near miss probably would not have happened, said investigator Scott Erickson of the National Transportation Safety Board in Anchorage. However, no one broke any laws, he said.
The incident occurred in November 1999 when the Boeing 737-400 touched down and had to swerve left to avoid a snowplow traveling on the right side of the runway. No one was injured, but the plane's right wing came within 32 feet of the snowplow, the report said. The maintenance crew was training a new employee at the time.
The plane was scheduled to land before the air traffic control tower opened for the day, so airport workers and pilots were communicating by radio with the FAA's flight service station, which is not within sight of the runway.
In its probable-cause report, the NTSB cited the flight crew for failing to tell the FAA station the aircraft was close to the runway. Although the jet's crew contacted the FAA station when the plane was 25 miles from the airstrip, they failed to advise the agency again at 10 miles, said Erickson. He added the crew is not required to do that when the tower is closed, but Alaska Airlines' own policy recommended it.
"When the tower is closed, if the flight crew had made their call and said we're 10 miles out, that's a big heads up," Erickson said.
The report also faulted the FAA station for failing to tell the pilot that maintenance workers were on the runway. The agency's Carol Veazie said the FAA planned to mention the snowplow when the flight crew called from 10 miles out, but that call never came. The FAA did not mention the snowplow when the pilot called from 25 miles because the maintenance workers had temporarily left the runway to let a cargo plane land, she said.
"At the time Alaska Airlines called at 25 miles out, the runway was clear. There was no personnel and equipment on the runway," said Veazie, manager of the Juneau flight service station.
The report also listed the snowplow driver as a factor. The FAA station had advised the snowplow driver of the Alaska Airlines jet when it was 10 minutes from the airstrip that was the last communication between the driver and the FAA before the incident. The driver failed to verify the imminent arrival of the airplane, the report said.
Although the NTSB tied the communication breakdown to all sides, no one broke any laws, Erickson said. That's because communication is mandatory only when the air traffic control tower is open. When it's closed, as it was that morning, pilots and airport workers are encouraged but not required to keep others abreast of their whereabouts, he said.
However, the near miss prompted some changes. The control tower expanded its hours last year from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. to 6 a.m.-11 p.m. to reduce the chance of a similar incident, said Steve Turner, control tower manager.
"Basically we encompass all Alaska Airlines' passenger-carrying flights now, as long as they're on schedule," Turner said. "We provide a much more positive control over who is on the runway."
Also, Alaska Airlines now requires its pilots to contact the FAA station from 10 miles away when the tower is closed, said company spokesman Jack Evans. In addition, the FAA station will communicate the whereabouts of airport workers and equipment to pilots and the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center, which tracks the flights, said the FAA's Veazie.
"If the aircraft are not talking to us, the center can pass them the information about personnel and equipment on the runway," she said.
A spokeswoman for the Juneau Airport called the NTSB findings fair.
"The NTSB has made a fair evaluation of this," said Patti deLaBruere. The incident "was something we all learned by."
Kathy Dye may be reached at email@example.com.