Monday, May 02, 2005

Air safety imperiled in controller slipup

Air traffic controllers at Tokyo's Haneda airport who mistakenly directed a Japan Airlines aircraft to land on a closed runway Friday were unaware of their mistake despite repeated questions from the approaching pilots, officials said over the weekend.

According to transport ministry officials, all of the 18 controllers on duty at Tokyo International Airport had forgotten the 3,000-meter runway A was to be closed from 9:30 p.m. Friday for maintenance.

JAL's flight 1158 from Obihiro in Hokkaido, carrying 51 passengers and crew, landed at 9:39 p.m. while the captain of another JAL flight decided to abort the landing after receiving inconsistent instructions. By law, captains are required to follow controllers' instructions. Only in exceptional cases do pilots question or disobey instructions.

Calling it a serious incident that could have led to an accident, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport's Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission is now investigating.

Meanwhile, the 18 controllers have been taken off regular duty for retraining to prevent a recurrence, according to officials.

They added that the ministry, which has recently criticized JAL's handling of a string of safety mishaps, has apologized to the airline via the ministry's Tokyo airport office.

Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa, rattled by his staff's mistakes, will also inspect Haneda's air traffic control office today.

According to the ministry, the captains of both flights had been told of the scheduled closure. Work on the runway's lamps was scheduled to start around 11 p.m.

The captain of flight 1158 twice asked for confirmation before finally landing minutes after the runway had closed.

Flight 1036 from New Chitose Airport, also in Hokkaido, had 161 people aboard when the controllers asked it to land on runway A.

The captain of that flight also questioned the instruction.

Despite the repeated requests for confirmation, the controllers only became aware of their mistake when another controller, on standby for a late-night shift, reminded them of the closure around 9:40 p.m., the officials said.

Still, one controller told the second aircraft to continue its descent to runway A, but advised in a separate comment that runway A could not be used. The captain then decided to abort the landing and retry. The controllers then approved a re-approach.

No one was injured in the incident. It came amid a series of air and railway safety problems, including last week's tragic train derailment that killed 107 people in Hyogo Prefecture, which have seriously shaken the nation's trust in safety.

According to the officials, the controllers were informed of the scheduled maintenance work a month ago.

The deputy chief controller was scheduled to remind the shift of the closure at a meeting Friday, but did not.

No one raised the issue at the meeting.

Because maintenance usually takes place at night, the deputy chief admitted being unaware that the closure would take place during their shift, the officials said.(IHT/Asahi: May 2,2005)