Two commercial passenger aircraft came within less than 100 metres (250 feet) of a mid-air collision last week at Portland International Airport in Oregon.
The near-miss took place between an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 as it tried to land and a SkyWest Airlines craft that was just taking off from a parallel runway during poor weather on 16 October, at nearly 5 p.m. Data reported by Sky News indicates the Alaska flight was coming in to land at 344 km/h (214mph) while the SkyWest craft had reached around 306 km/h (190mph).
According to a statement from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Alaska Airlines pilot initiated what is known as a “go-around”, essentially aborting the plane’s landing due to high winds. As it did so, it inadvertently turned towards the take-off path of the SkyWest plane whose wheels had just left the tarmac.
“While attempting to land at Portland International Airport, the pilot of Alaska Airlines Flight 1299 initiated a go-around due to wind and turned towards SkyWest Airlines Flight 3978, which had just departed,” the FAA statement explained. “An air traffic controller instructed the Alaska Airlines pilot to turn away from the SkyWest aircraft.”
The Alaska Airlines flight was diverted to land at another airport.
Audio of the incident reveals the Alaska Airlines pilot apparently obeying air traffic control instructions to follow a “runway heading” path – commands actually intended for the other flight. The Alaska plane turned towards the ascending SkyWest plane, while the air traffic controller, described as “flustered” and “frantic” by some outlets, warned the Alaska pilot to change course.
Commercial aircraft operating below 8,800 metres (29,000 feet) altitude, must usually keep at least 305 metres (1,000 feet) of vertical separation between them. To be classed as a “near miss”, an incident must involve aircraft being less than 150 meters (500 feet) from each other. Above Portland, the planes came within 76 vertical metres (250 feet) of each other.
Both airlines sought to manage potential negative press by insisting safe distances were maintained at all times. SkyWest told press that “at no point was the safety of the flight compromised”. Alaska echoed this and a spokesperson emphasised its crew’s response.
“The crew of Flight 1299 followed cockpit indications and reacted immediately to increase separation from the other aircraft,” an Alaska spokesperson said. “The aircraft maintained a safe amount of lateral separation throughout the entire event”.
At the time of writing, news wires are reporting another incident on Sunday 22 October, involving Alaska Airlines flight AS2059 to San Francisco, on which a passenger tried to seize control of the plane. The airline has confirmed to ABC News that a “credible security threat related to an authorized occupant in the flight deck jump seat,” resulted in a forced landing – again in Portland.