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Federal Officials Investigating Near Collision At San Francisco Airport


Airlines and air traffic controllers have a method to keep air travel safe. They intensively examine incidents in which something goes wrong or even incidents in which something almost goes wrong. That was the case in San Francisco last week, when an Air Canada jet coming in for a landing almost struck a United Airlines plane waiting to take off. NPR's David Schaper reports on what investigators have learned.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #1: Hello, good evening. Air Canada 759 with you, visual two eight right.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Just before midnight last Friday, the pilot of Air Canada flight 759 radioed the tower at San Francisco airport to confirm that he was to land on runway 28 right.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #1: And, tower, just want to on account of 759, we see some lights on the runway there.

SCHAPER: On this recording from liveatc.net, the pilot says he sees lights from other planes on what he thinks is the runway, where he's supposed to land. But the controller says there's no one there.


UNIDENTIFIED CONTROLLER: OK, 759 confirmed, clear to land runway two eight right. There's no one on two eight right but you.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #1: On account of 759...

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #2: What's this guy doing?

SCHAPER: Another pilot on the ground interrupts.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #2: He's on the taxi lane.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #1: Going to go around, Air Canada 759.

SCHAPER: The pilot aborts because he's lined up to land on a taxiway, where four commercial jetliners loaded with hundreds of passengers and full tanks of fuel are waiting to take off.

TODD CURTIS: Certainly, the possibility of a tragedy is rather large here.

SCHAPER: Aviation safety expert Todd Curtis says, had the Air Canada A320 landed on the taxiway, it could have hit all four waiting planes with catastrophic results but it didn't. The reason?

CURTIS: There were checks and balances in the system - specifically, the judgment of the people on the ground, in the air and in the control tower - that allowed the flying crew to make the correct decision and to abort the landing.

MARTY LAUTH: Obviously, it shouldn't have happened. And to say this happens with frequency is not true.

SCHAPER: Former air traffic controller Marty Lauth now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He says it's rare for pilots to mistake taxiways for runways, especially at night.

LAUTH: Because the runway is marked with a certain color lights, white lights. Your taxiways are blue lights, so that should be easily discernible at night.

SCHAPER: Lauth and others say it's very unlikely that the Air Canada flight crew would have continued landing, even if not called off, because they did see the lights of the planes on the ground in front of them. Now, federal investigators are trying to figure out why there was any confusion. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.