Runway safety concerns in focus as Japan probes Tokyo crash


 (Reuters) - Japanese investigators are preparing to probe the collision of two airplanes at Tokyo's Haneda airport, weeks after the global airline industry heard fresh warnings about runway safety.

All 379 people aboard a Japan Airlines (9201.T) Airbus A350 escaped after a collision with a De Havilland Dash-8 Coast Guard turboprop that killed five of six crew on the smaller aircraft.

People familiar with the investigation said the Japan Safety Transport Board (JTSB) would lead the probe with participation from agencies in France, where the airplane was built, and Britain where its two Rolls-Royce engines were manufactured.

Experts have cautioned it is too early to pinpoint a cause and stress most accidents are caused by a cocktail of factors.

But investigators are widely expected to explore what instructions were given by controllers to the two aircraft, alongside a detailed examination of plane and airport systems.

A ministry official told reporters in Japan on Tuesday that the A350 was attempting to land normally when it collided with the Coast Guard plane, also known as a Bombardier Dash-8.

One of the first tasks will be to recover black box recorders with flight data and cockpit voice recordings.

Experts said the location of the accident means physical evidence, radar data, and witness accounts or camera footage are likely to be readily available, easing the huge forensic task.

"One obvious question is whether the coastguard plane was on the runway and if so why," said Paul Hayes, director of aviation safety at UK-based consultancy Ascend by Cirium.

The crash is the first significant accident involving the Airbus A350, Europe's premier twin-engined long-haul jet, in service since 2015.

According to preliminary 2023 data, the collision of the Coast Guard plane with a two-year-old jetliner three times its length follows one of the safest years in aviation.

But it also comes after a U.S.-based safety group warned last month about the risk of runway collisions or "incursions".

The Flight Safety Foundation called for global action to prevent a new uptick in runway incursions as skies become more congested.

"Despite efforts over the years to prevent incursions, they still happen," CEO Hassan Shahidi said in a statement.

"The risk of runway incursions is a global concern, and the potential consequences of an incursion are severe."

Although ground collisions involving injury or damage have become rare, their potential for loss of life is among the highest of any category and near-misses are more common.

A collision between two Boeing 747s in Tenerife in 1977, killing 583 people, remains aviation's most deadly accident.


The Washington-based foundation has found that breakdowns in communication and coordination can play a role in runway crashes or near misses.

But a shortage of electronics to avoid collisions on the ground, rather than in the air where software to trigger avoidance has been available since the 1980s, is also a concern.

"Many of the serious incidents could have been avoided through better situational awareness technologies that can help air traffic controllers and pilots detect potential runway conflicts," Shahidi said.

The Federal Aviation Administration says some three dozen U.S. airports are fitted with a system called ASDE-X that uses radar, satellites, and a navigation tool called multilateration to track ground movements.

But National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy said in November the U.S. aviation network - a bellwether for airports worldwide - lacks sufficient technology to prevent runway incursions.

In 2018, Airbus said it was working with Honeywell on a system called SURF-A or Surface-Alert designed to help prevent runway collisions by giving pilots visual and audio warnings about approaching hazards on the runway.

Honeywell Aerospace Technologies expects SURF-A, which is operational on its experimental test aircraft, to be certified and available to airlines gradually over the next few years, division CEO Jim Currier said by email.

Far-reaching reforms of European and U.S. air traffic networks that could accelerate the use of such computerized systems have faced chronic delays.

Airbus did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Steve Creamer, a former senior director at the International Civil Aviation Organization, said preventing a landing aircraft from striking a plane is among the top five global safety priorities.

Although automated landings are increasing, experts say much still depends on visual checks by pilots who may be distracted by a high workload or the blur of a night-time runway.

"I think the investigation will focus a lot on the clearances ... and then also what the (JAL) crew could see. Could they physically see that airplane on the runway," said former U.S. air accident investigator John Cox.

Lighting was an issue in a 1991 collision between a USAir plane and SkyWest Airlines aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport in California, for example.

"One of the things that came out of that was that the USAir crew physically could not see the SkyWest Metroliner there. Although it was on the runway, the lighting was such that you … physically couldn’t see it," he said.

Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Lincoln Feast

 (AP) — A series of powerful earthquakes that hit western Japan left at least 62 people dead as rescue workers fought Wednesday to save those feared trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Aftershocks continued to shake Ishikawa prefecture and nearby areas two days after a magnitude 7.6 temblor slammed the area. The first 72 hours are considered crucial to save lives after disasters.

Water, power, and cell phone service were still down in some areas. Residents expressed sorrow about their uncertain futures.

“It’s not just that it’s a mess. The wall has collapsed, and you can see through to the next room. I don’t think we can live here anymore,” Miki Kobayashi, an Ishikawa resident, said as she swept around her house.

The house was also damaged in a 2007 quake, she said.

Of the deaths, 29 were counted in Wajima city, while 22 people died in Suzu, according to Ishikawa Prefectural authorities. Dozens of people have been seriously injured, including in nearby prefectures.

Although casualty numbers continued to climb gradually, the prompt public warnings relayed on broadcasts and phones, and the quick response from the general public and officials appeared to have limited some of the damage.

Toshitaka Katada, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in disasters, said people were prepared because the area had been hit by quakes in recent years. They had evacuation plans and emergency supplies in stock.

“There are probably no people on Earth who are as disaster-ready as the Japanese,” he told The Associated Press.

Japan is frequently hit by earthquakes because of its location along the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

Katada warned the situation remains precarious and unpredictable. The March 2011 quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan had been preceded by other quakes.

“This is far from over,” Katada said.

Predictions by scientists have repeatedly been proven wrong, such as with the 2016 quake in southwestern Kumamoto, an area previously seen as relatively quake-free.

“Having too much confidence in the power of science is very dangerous. We are dealing with nature,” Katada said.

Japanese media’s aerial footage showed widespread damage in the hardest-hit spots, with landslides burying roads, boats tossed in the waters, and a fire that had turned an entire section of Wajima city to ashes.

Japan’s military has dispatched 1,000 soldiers to the disaster zones to join rescue efforts. It was uncertain how many more victims might still be in the rubble.

Nuclear regulators said several nuclear plants in the region were operating normally. A major quake and tsunami in 2011 caused three reactors to melt and release large amounts of radiation at a nuclear plant in northeastern Japan.

On Monday, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a major tsunami warning for Ishikawa and lower-level tsunami warnings or advisories for the rest of the western coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, as well as for the northern island of Hokkaido.

The warning was downgraded several hours later, and all tsunami warnings were lifted as of early Tuesday. Waves measuring more than one meter (3 feet) hit some places.

Still, half-sunken ships floated in bays where tsunami waves had rolled in, leaving a muddied coastline.

People who were evacuated from their houses huddled in auditoriums, schools, and community centers. Bullet trains in the region were halted, but service was mostly restored. Sections of highways were closed.

Weather forecasters predicted rain, setting off worries about crumbling buildings and infrastructure.

The region includes tourist spots famous for lacquerware and other traditional crafts, along with designated cultural heritage sites.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined President Joe Biden and other world leaders in expressing support for the Japanese.

“Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan,” he said. “We will provide, and have offered, whatever support is requested by our friends in Japan.”


Kageyama reported from Tokyo. Videographer Richard Columbo contributed from Suzu, reporter Rod McGuirk contributed from Sydney.

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