Aircraft Collision at Haneda Airport: Why Did This Unprecedented Accident Occur?

An accident that should never have occurred — two airplanes colliding at the nation’s largest airport hub — has happened. The central government and the police must be thorough and swift in investigating the cause of the accident.

On the evening of Tuesday (Jan. 2), a Japan Airlines passenger plane that had just landed collided with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft that was taking off on a runway at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, and both planes burst into flames.

Five of the six crew members aboard the JCG plane, except the captain who managed to escape on his own, were killed. All 379 passengers and crew members aboard the JAL plane escaped, but more than 10 sustained throat or other injuries.

The JAL passengers and crew were forced to use escape chutes to get away quickly as flames rose from the fuselage. One cannot imagine the terror they felt during their evacuation.

If the evacuation had been slower, the disaster could have been much worse. The successful evacuation was probably thanks to JAL’s regular training sessions and the calm response by the crew and others at the scene.

The government’s Transport Safety Board has launched an investigation into the accident. The Metropolitan Police Department, for its part, has established a special investigation headquarters to start its probe.

To ensure the safety of passengers, which is the most important mission for a public transportation system, it is essential to determine the cause of this unprecedented accident and take thorough steps to prevent a recurrence.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and the JCG, the JCG plane entered Haneda Airport’s Runway C from the west, and then the JAL plane, which landed from the south, collided with the JCG plane.

In a recording of communications between the air traffic controllers and the two airplanes released by the transport ministry, a controller gave permission for the JAL aircraft to land at the airport immediately before the accident. The JCG aircraft, on the other hand, was asked to stop on a taxiway in front of Runway C, and was not instructed to take off.

Why did the JCG plane enter the runway? The Transport Safety Board needs to get to the bottom of this through such measures as hearing from the parties concerned.

An increasing number of international flights at Haneda Airport has resulted in overcrowded use of runways. Air traffic control also is said to have become more complicated. The effect of these factors, too, will need to be examined.

The accident has directly affected the rush of people returning from their hometowns or resorts where they spent their New Year’s holidays. Runway C at Haneda Airport has been closed, and flights have been canceled one after another. It is hoped that disruptions will be minimized by, for example, using nearby airports such as Narita Airport.

Meanwhile, the JCG aircraft had been scheduled to transport food and water as part of relief efforts following the earthquakes in the Noto region in Ishikawa Prefecture. The five crew members, who died without completing such an important mission, would no doubt have felt deep regret, and the despair felt by their bereaved families and others is also immeasurable.

The central government should make every possible effort to ensure that the accident will not affect aid efforts in the areas hit by the earthquakes.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 4, 2024)