Video: Planes collide on JFK airport runway

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 4/12/2011 8:45:45 PM ET 2011-04-13T00:45:45

An Air France-operated A380 superjumbo jet — the biggest commercial airliner in the world — clipped the tail of regional jet late Monday at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, spinning the smaller plane like a toy. The incident has some aviation experts concerned about ground accidents as U.S. airports begin handling a new generation of giant planes.

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A total of 586 passengers and crew members were aboard the two aircraft Monday night when the left wing of an Airbus A380 operated by Air France clipped a Bombardier CRJ-700 regional jet flown by Comair, spinning the smaller plane nearly 90 degrees. No one was injured.

'Going to happen more and more'
The superjumbo Airbus is so immense — as tall as a seven-story building, with a wing span as wide as a Manhattan block — that its wing could have almost cleared the smaller plane. But not quite.

"It's the sheer size of these aircraft and the congestion at these airports that's the problem," said Allan Tamm, a consultant with Avicor Aviation, based in Portland, Ore. "It's a serious concern for all these airports trying to accommodate these aircraft. It's going to happen more and more."

The collision happened at one of the nation's most congested airports on a rainy night when flashing lights reflecting off wet tarmac can obscure small aircraft. It comes as airports around the country are beginning to receive a new class of huge aircraft.

JFK was built in the 1950s, when jets were smaller. Airport officials had to secure FAA waivers for both the A380 and the 747-8. Monday's collision might spur the FAA to take a second look at JFK's rules for handling large aircraft, said aviation consultant John Cox.

Fourteen airports have obtained waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration to receive the new Boeing 747-8, which falls into the same new size class as the A380, The Associated Press reported last week. And Boeing is working with 13 more airports to get approval from the FAA, though not all of them may require waivers.

Most U.S. airports cannot legally handle the A380 or 747-8 because of FAA space requirements aimed at keeping planes from bumping into each other. But the FAA can issue waivers if airport officials agree to certain procedures, such as using only certain taxiways or halting other traffic when one of these mammoth planes is on the move.

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Many of the airports asking for permission to handle the Boeing 747-8 may have trouble handling them, especially when aircraft are turning, Tamm said.

"A lot of these airports are only marginally ready," he said.

Story: Airports preparing for biggest version yet of 747

The flurry of new waivers coincides with an increase in air traffic as the U.S. economy recovers. The number of passengers flying in the U.S. increased from 767 million in 2009 to 782 million in 2010.

'Pretty damned scary'
"It was pretty damned scary," Poppy Lawton, 29, of London, told the New York Daily News. She was aboard the Delta flight that got hit. "You could hear things breaking, almost like glass breaking."

"The plane was rocking, first to the right, then to the left," Delta passenger Sebastien Pinel, 33, also told the newspaper. "Nobody knew what happened until we got out of the plane," he added.

A CNN correspondent on the Air France flight to Paris reported that he felt a "slight rumble akin to hitting a patch of rough pavement" as the jet hit the other plane.

The correspondent said about a foot of the Air France superjumbo's left wing appeared to be damaged.

The National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing radio recordings, radar data and flight recorders from both aircraft in Monday's accident.

The impact tore open the leading edge of the Airbus' left wing and broke off half of the wing fence, a vertical fin that sticks out from the wingtip, photos from the NTSB show. The Bombardier had a hole in its rudder and a dent on the leading edge of the tail.

"This wasn't just two airplanes bumping together. The Air France plane really creamed the regional jet," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry funded group that promotes global aviation safety.

An audio recording of conversations between the JFK controller responsible for coordinating the movement of planes on the tarmac and the two aircraft indicates the Comair plane was trying to exit the taxiway but may have stopped short because of congestion on the ramp — the area where planes park, Voss said.

In the dark and rain, "both pilots and controllers would have been confronted with sea of flashing lights and reflections which could partly explain why the Air France pilot may not have seen the regional jet," Voss said.

Expert: It was pilot's responsibility
The main danger in a collision between two taxiing aircraft is that a fuel spill will lead to a fire, Cox said. He praised the flight crew of the regional jet for immediately requesting airport fire and rescue help.

Kennedy's FAA-approved rule book for the A380 is 36 pages long and limits the planes mostly to Taxiway A, which encircles the terminals. The Air France flight was on Taxiway A. Other planes may have to be held on taxiways until the A380 passes by, Cox said.

But Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles, said that could cause an uproar.

"You try to sterilize an area for an A380 and just listen to everybody else at that airport have a heart attack," Barr said. Ultimately, he said, it is the responsibility of the pilot to make sure there's enough room.

The problem of planes colliding with each other on runways — or with baggage carts, other vehicles or people that might be crossing runways — has been a top aviation safety concern since the late 1980s, when there was a spate of deadly incidents.

Among the steps taken by FAA have been briefings on runway safety for air traffic controllers, improved airport signs and other markings so that pilots know where to turn, and installation of runway lights that turn red to warn pilots against entering or landing on the runway or taxiway. However, only about two dozen airports have the runway lights.

Beginning in 2001, the FAA began installing warning systems that collect and analyze data from airport radar in order to detect potential collisions on airport runways and taxiways. When a potential collision is detected, controllers receive visual and audio alerts. But the NTSB has said the alerts don't give flight crews enough time to react.

The agency also has been encouraging airlines to equip cockpits with electronic displays that show pilots the positions and movements of all aircraft on runways and taxiways. However, the agency has stopped short of requiring the equipment and it has not been widely adopted.

Demanding job
Working ground control at a busy airport like JFK is one of the most demanding jobs in the nation's air traffic control system, Voss said. "It is extremely complex, highly visual and the workload can become almost superhuman," he said.

The NTSB has requested the fight recorders from both aircraft and will review the content of those devices as part of the investigation. The NTSB also plans to review the air traffic control tapes and ground movement radar data.

According to Air France, 495 people and 25 crew members were on the Airbus A380. The airline is cooperating with the investigation.

The flight operated by Comair was carrying 62 passengers and four crew members, said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., for which Comair operates regional flights. All the passengers were taken off the plane and into a terminal, she said.

Most Comair passengers were able to make their connections last night, and Delta covered any additional travel costs for passengers.

The Air France passengers were provided hotel accommodations or transferred onto other flights, Air France said in a statement.

The most serious safety scare for the world's largest and newest jetliners occurred last year, when a Rolls-Royce engine on a Qantas A380 disintegrated shortly after takeoff from Singapore, prompting Qantas to temporarily ground its fleet. A preliminary report blamed the massive engine failure on an oil leak.

Monday's collision shows the complexity of ground operations, a part of air travel often overlooked by passengers eager to get out of their seats and on their way home, experts said. In 1977, in what remains the world's deadliest aviation accident, two jumbo jets collided on a runway on Spain's Canary Islands, killing 583 passengers and crew members.

The worst U.S. runway accident involving two aircraft was a collision between a USAir 737 and a Skywest Metroliner commuter plane at the Los Angeles airport in 1991. Thirty-four people were killed.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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