Torqued: Knowing When To Intervene in Aviation

 - September 4, 2017, 9:53 AM

Three recent incidents got me thinking about how we—as bystanders, coworkers or participants—react to developing situations in aviation. In two of these events, there is no detailed investigation, so the purpose of this article is to start a conversation about how we should respond—and even if we should respond—when we see what could be dangerous situations developing that we’re not directly responsible for. In each of these cases, I believe more could have been done by others to avert a tragedy in one case and, in the others, to prevent a bad situation from developing or getting worse.

The three incidents I am referring to are the Air Canada flight that came close to landing on a taxiway in San Francisco with other jetliners awaiting takeoff; the United Airlines flight where a ticketed toddler—over the age of two—was forced to fly as a lap child; and the death of a tourist in Saint Martin from jet blast. Each of these incidents involved different groups of people who could have intervened or perhaps acted more forcefully as the events unfolded. Maybe talking about alternative ways these events could have played out will make a difference if we are faced with similar situations in the future.

In the incident in Saint Martin, a 57-year-old woman visiting the island from New Zealand was at a popular tourist beach located just outside the Princess Juliana International Airport fence. She reportedly had been hanging on to the airport fence when the jet blast from a departing airliner sent her reeling backwards into a concrete walk. The fence was marked with danger signs warning that jet blast could cause “extreme bodily harm and/or death.” It’s not clear how many people were on the beach at the time, but there were family members with her who later expressed remorse for the risk they took in not heeding the warnings. 

The incident, of course, raises questions about individual accountability for safety and government responsibility for not taking stronger actions to protect the beach from jet blast (a women was injured there several years earlier). But it also raised for me the question of whether any bystanders warned the woman of the dangers of clinging to the airport fence. And whether they should have. If we see a complete stranger doing something that is or may be dangerous, do we warn them? Should we?

Raising a Question

In the incident involving a United Airlines passenger travelling with her ticketed 27-month-old toddler, the airline gave the child's seat (for which the parent had purchased a ticket) to another passenger because of an apparent ticketing snafu. FAA regulations require all children who have reached their second birthday to have a seat of their own. Although the mother tried to explain that her son had a ticket for that seat, the flight attendant nonetheless insisted he fly as a lap child. (News reports have the mother stating that she wasn’t more forceful because images of a bloodied doctor dragged off a recent United flight were giving her pause. Now there’s a commentary on contemporary flying.)

Photos widely distributed in the media show a rather large child sprawled across his mother in the seat. Aside from the conduct of the flight attendant directly involved with the incident, what about the rest of the cabin crew? No one else walked down the aisle and wondered why such a large child was travelling as a lap child? Maybe flight attendants can’t discern a 24-month-old from a 27-month-old, but to comply with the regulations if there’s any question—and there should have been some question given the size of the child—they need to inquire further.

As a longtime advocate of proper restraints for travelers of all ages, I found it dismaying to see United unable or unwilling to comply with existing regulations that children two years old and over have to have their own seat and their own safety belt. I know flights are full and flight attendants have a tough job, but this is such a basic requirement—a separate seat with a separate seat belt properly secured—that it seems to me that a properly trained crew would have asked the mother if the child was over the age of two and not allowed him to travel unrestrained.

The last incident I want to highlight is probably the most difficult one: when does an aviation professional question the actions of another aviation professional, particularly when they have different fields of expertise? The incident I’m referring to was the disaster that was narrowly averted right before midnight on July 7 at San Francisco International Airport when an Air Canada A320 carrying 140 people almost landed on a parallel taxiway with four jumbo jets awaiting take off. Audio of the exchange ( between the Air Canada crew and air traffic control shows the pilot asking ATC to confirm the runway because “we see some lights on the runway.” The controller confirms the runway and adds “there’s no one…but you.” Almost immediately after, an unidentified voice can be heard questioning “Where’s this guy going? He’s on the taxiway.” ATC then issues the Air Canada flight a go-around instruction.

Both the NTSB and the Canadian equivalent, the Transportation Safety Board, are investigating the incident. A preliminary TSB statement shows that the Air Canada aircraft had overflown the taxiway for a quarter of a mile before ATC instructed it to go around. The TSB estimated that the Air Canada flight overflew two aircraft by 100 feet, one by 200 feet and one by 300 feet. The closest lateral distance was estimated to be 29 feet.

There’s no question that disaster was averted by minutes if not seconds. But should the situation have gotten this close? Should the controller have done more to ascertain that the Air Canada flight was correctly lined up for the runway or instructed a go-around when the pilot first indicated seeing lights on the “runway”? I know it’s tough to question another person’s professionalism—especially when it’s not your area of expertise—but sometimes perhaps we need to do just that.