Collision at Haneda Airport: Strengthen Systems to Guard Against Human Error

The recent aircraft collision at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport has come to be seen as a result of a combination of human error factors. To prevent a recurrence, double and triple safety measures need to be implemented.

In the accident, a Japan Airlines passenger plane attempting to land collided with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft on the runway. Both went up in flames, killing five members of the crew aboard the JCG aircraft.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has released the communication record from just prior to the accident. According to the record, the air traffic controller told the JCG aircraft it was “No. 1” in order of takeoff, and instructed the aircraft to stop just before the runway. The captain may have mistaken this for permission to enter the runway.

The JCG aircraft entered the runway and stopped there for about 40 seconds before the JAL plane collided with it. The JAL plane crew reportedly said they did not see the JCG aircraft on the runway when it landed.

In the event of an aircraft’s erroneous entry to the runway, there is a system using images of the runway and aircraft to indicate the situation onscreen in the control tower. However, air traffic controllers did not notice the onscreen indication that would have alerted them to the irregularity.

How did this happen? The Japan Transport Safety Board is urged to analyze relevant data including the voice recordings of conversations between the captain and crew of both planes to determine the cause.

After the accident, the ministry came up with emergency measures, including assigning personnel at seven airports, including Haneda, to constantly monitor the screens that indicate any aircraft’s erroneous presence.

While this is a first step toward preventing a recurrence, it is not sufficient as a permanent measure. Aircraft operations rely heavily on human judgment. No matter how much care is taken, human error can still occur.

To prevent the worst from happening, it is essential to have multi-layered safety measures, in terms of both hardware and software, in place to compensate for mistakes.

It will be essential to improve the system with measures such as having the monitor emit a loud warning sound in the event of a runway incursion. Consideration should be given to introducing a mechanism that would allow such warnings to be transmitted to the crews of aircraft landing and taking off.

With the increase in the number of foreign visitors to Japan, Haneda Airport’s slots for arrivals and departures are overcrowded. It is also important to examine the possible use of different runways for takeoffs and landings, and to review how air traffic controllers are assigned.

There have been a number of runway incursions in the past. On each occasion, measures such as thorough safety training and having captains repeat back instructions received have been implemented. It is also important to examine why these lessons were not applied this time.

The government has established a committee of outside experts to study measures to prevent similar accidents. The committee is urged to come up with concrete measures, referring to the latest technology and overseas examples.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan 13, 2024)