The Bottom Line / A Matter of One Second

Four months ago, on July 6, at 2:00 A.M., 260 people escaped death at New York's JFK International Airport when a Boeing 767 operated by Israir crossed a runway in the path of an American cargo plane.

A crew member in the American plane noticed the Israeli aircraft and shouted, "Somebody's on the runway," and the pilot swerved, narrowly missing the passenger plane. The gap between life and death was a single second.

According to the incident report, the Israeli aircraft shook due to the proximity of the cargo plane's engines, while the flight crew was shaken up by the experience. When the pilot asked if the crew was mentally and physically able to continue, everyone replied in the affirmative.

In truth, they were all amazed that the control tower did not order them to stop immediately and abort the flight in light of the serious error they had made.

As in every accident, here too there was a series of circumstances and mistakes, the absence of any one of which would have prevented the entire incident.

The most significant error was the unforgivable mistake of the Israeli crew, which despite being unsure of its location, continued to taxi right across an active runway instead of coming to a halt.

It was a rainy, cloudy night with zero visibility. In light of the expansion and renovation program at JFK, there have been frequent changes to the taxiways, runways and traffic lights and symbols. The changes confused the pilots - including a trainee pilot from Alitalia who was in the cockpit.

The control tower did not respond to the Israir flight crew's request for location because there were only two controllers in the tower, overworked and near exhaustion "due to cutbacks."

And if all this was not enough, the report revealed that Kennedy's ground radar system is ineffective in rainy conditions - in other words, the control tower is blind when it comes to ground traffic. (In consideration of our readers, we will jump ahead and point out that airport officials have already come to one conclusion as a result of the incident and have purchased a new ground radar system that can pick up aircraft even in stormy weather.)

A parallel series of fortunate circumstances and incidents affecting the cargo plane prevented a disaster. First, the cargo plane was empty. Had it been full, it would have been unable to take off after taxiing down only half the length of the runway as it did. Second, the American pilot began accelerating for takeoff at full force, with all the engines engaged, enabling him to lift off as soon as he noticed the Israir plane through the fog.

One of the governing principles for all pilots is complete transparency: Pilots are trained to report every malfunction, near miss or error even if it has negative implications for them personally. This is the only way to prevent fatal accidents from occurring in the future.

In this case, this basic principle was violated. An attempt was made to change the pilots report and turn this dangerous incident into an insignificant one. As a result, Israir removed the operations manager and the chief pilot, and made some changes to its safety arrangements. Safety procedures were reviewed, and a professional committee was established to examine and implement the report's recommendations. In addition, a new position - manager of operational safety - was created, along with a supreme safety commission, headed by Israir CEO Sabina Biran.

It is worth noting that similar incidents occur at other airlines and that this was the first such incident at Israir. For this reason - assuming that Israir truly drew the necessary conclusions, spent whatever is needed and improved its safety methods - there is no reason for the incident to affect the expected decision next week by Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson to approve the airline's request to operate regularly scheduled flights to New York.