Runway near-miss leads to changes

Longer tower hours, more training, stricter procedures introduced

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000

The near-collision of a snowplow and an Alaska Airlines jet at the Juneau Airport in November has produced a number of procedural and communications changes, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigator Scott Erickson.

They include expanded airport control tower hours, added awareness training for ground personnel and more stringent aircraft location procedures.

The NTSB has released its finding of fact in the incident and will release its probable-cause report at an as-yet-undetermined time in the future.

The Alaska Airlines flight from Sitka carried 53 passengers and five crew members when it landed at about 6:45 a.m. on Nov. 2, 15 minutes before the airport control tower was scheduled to open.

No one was injured in the near miss. The 737-400 jet came to within 32 feet of the snowplow, according to the report.

The Federal Aviation Administration's flight service station knew the airport was training a new employee on a snowplow on the runway, according to the report. They were practicing where to plow snow into berms.

When the airport control tower is closed, which in November was from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., airport workers and pilots communicate by radio with the FAA flight service station, which is not within sight of the runway.

At 6:32 on the morning of the incident, the Alaska Airlines jet told the FAA it was at the Sisters intersection about 25 miles from the airport, the report said. No men or equipment were on the runway at the time, the report said, and the FAA didn't tell the pilot about the snowplow work.

At 6:34, the report said, the snowplow driver called the FAA station and said: ``... if you have no reported traffic, like to have men and equipment on the runway.''

At 6:35, the FAA specialist responded: ``No known traffic at this time, the jet's due in, in about 10 minutes at 45 (minutes past the hour).''

At 6:42, Flight 73 called the FAA station and said: ``Ah, we just landed and there was a truck on the runway; we, ah, just barely missed it ... ah, it, we had to swerve very far to the left of the runway to miss the truck.''

The FAA specialist responded that he was sorry and that he had missed Flight 73's last report. ``I didn't hear a Barlo area report (9 miles from the airport) I thought it was Asort, the last one,'' he said.

Asort refers to an intersection 21 miles from the Sisters intersection. It is usually a reporting point for planes flying from the north, not from Sitka, the report said.

``With the tower closed, the airspace is basically uncontrolled airspace,'' the NTSB's Erickson said.

Position reporting and comings and goings from the airport are advisory in nature, he said, that is, ``The pilots will advise on a voluntary basis.''

The airport has since expanded its control tower hours: from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. In addition, FAA personnel may now request that pilots announce their final approach fix. Correspondingly, Alaska Airlines has changed its procedures to make final approach fix reporting mandatory.

On the ground, there will be increased training for airport personnel with respect to aircraft location and the proper orientation of plows so that they face incoming aircraft during training.

Erickson praised the parties involved -- the FAA, Alaska Airlines, airport personnel and flight standards personnel -- for getting together only two weeks after the incident to address communications problems and procedures. ``It was refreshing to see,'' he said.

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