3 aviation lessons from the Air Canada near miss

The near miss in San Francisco last year provides a valuable learning opportunity to reduce the risk of aviation accidents in the future.

On July 7, 2017, minutes before midnight, an Airbus Air Canada flight came within feet of causing the worst crash in aviation history. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports air traffic control cleared the plane to land on a specific runway at the San Francisco International Airport. The pilots prepared to land on the wrong runway. Instead of the given runway, the pilots began to descend on a runway that was occupied by four passenger planes awaiting takeoff.

NTSB officials have stated "over 1,000 people were at imminent risk of serious injury or death" in this incident. One year has passed since the incident and the NTSB has released the findings from its official investigation.

Three key lessons from this incident that can help to improve the safety of aviation travel include:

  • Prompt reporting. The pilot in this case did not report the incident to the NTSB until the next day. As a result, another pilot had taken the Airbus involved in the incident on another flight. This led to the loss of the audio loop from the cockpit voice recording mechanism. The investigators did not have this evidence to help determine what went wrong. Government regulations can avoid a similar issue could with a more efficient reporting requirement in the event of an incident of this nature.
  • Longer log. Another option to ensure the evidence remains intact: longer recording capture. The NTSB has stated that it is considering a recommendation to record 25 hours of flying time. This would translate to a two-hour increase over current requirements.
  • Better lighting. The San Francisco International Airport was making updates to a runway at the time of the incident. As such, the NTSB notes the closure of one runway likely contributed to the problem. The agency recommends better lighting recommendations to indicate runway closures in the future.

Aviation travel is generally safe. The crews that operate these airplanes are often well trained and experienced. In this case, the pilots on the taxiway likely helped avoid disaster by having the foresight to turn on their lights to warn the Air Canada pilots to steer away from the runway.

Unfortunately, not every crew is prepared to avoid a disaster. Legal remedies are available when a pilot or crew's failure to act appropriately when operating a passenger aircraft results in a serious accident that injures passengers. A passenger could have a case to hold the owner of the aircraft, pilot or federal government liable for injuries sustained in an aviation accident.