The accident on Jan 2, 2024 at Tokyo Haneda airport and the subsequent media analysis highlights a complex network of safety features surrounding all aircraft operations. The miraculous evacuation of the Japan Airlines A350 notwithstanding, gaps in the safety systems and communications protocols led to the loss of life onboard the Japanese Coast Guard Dash 8. As coverage shifts into deeper analysis, we wanted to share our notes and offer our perspectives based on initial reports of the accident. Subsequent investigation will ultimately illuminate the full set of circumstances.
That an A350 was one of the two aircraft involved is a strong indicator of the current state of the art. In fact, the A350 is one of the newest wide body jets in service. It is therefore a good representation of the “best available” on-board safety technology. The accident would therefore appear to indicate an overall safety framework that remains susceptible to shortcomings in manual communication protocols, ground systems and the cooperation of other aircraft.
Relevant Safety Technologies
A variety of safety technologies have been discussed in the coverage of the accident. These include:
ADS-B - The Dash-8 did not have an ADS-B transponder operating. The accident will almost certainly increase pressure to mandate the technology more widely.
Runway Lights - Runway lighting to indicate an incursion of the Dash 8 may have malfunctioned.
SURF-A - This technology is in development but is not yet implemented at any airports. It may help prevent accidents like this in the future.
Vision Systems - Our research indicates that the Japan Airlines A350 likely had a dual HUD with synthetic vision. However, this technology may not have been relevant given the scenario and the fair weather conditions during the accident. It is not clear if the A350 had an optional EVS system.
Increased Frequency of Close Calls in the United States
We note that a number of close calls and accidents in the United States in the last few years could easily have resulted in a similar or worse accident. These near misses and accidents are well-documented by the New York Times (Near Misses Review, Houston Lobby Collision). An FAA SAFO acknowledged these issues early in 2023, but we believe that more aggressive leadership in technology research and adoption is warranted.
At VTI, we consistently speak with both commercial and private pilots. In these conversations, we've heard two common scenarios where conflict risk between aircraft is increased. The first involves clearance from the tower to cross a runway “without delay” when traffic is landing/departing. In these cases, pilots may decide, based on observing the traffic, that the sequencing is too tight and decide to wait to cross. The second scenario involves pressure to fold in departures amidst a lineup of landing aircraft at single runway airports. This scenario is especially common at smaller “destination” airports on busy weekends when both commercial and private jet traffic peaks (think ski towns on President's Day weekend). The pattern can lead to miscommunications for aircraft told “hold short” or “cleared for takeoff”.
At the heart of the space of technology solutions for airline safety is a debate about “infrastructure” vs “on-board”. Infrastructure solutions require standardization, investment, and maintenance. And they are only as good as the degree to which governments will mandate their installation. At VTI, we’re building on-board solutions that allow aircraft operators to better guarantee their own safety. Other industry players such as Airbus and Collins Aerospace underline this sentiment with their own marketing. This approach is especially relevant in emerging air travel markets where infrastructure-based safety updates are unlikely to be a priority of local government.
Call to Action
As the investigation proceeds, the industry should continue to reflect on the success of existing safety measures that thankfully enabled all passengers and crew on JAL516 to survive. At the same time, the industry must acknowledge that lives were lost and the need for additional aviation safety measures across all aircraft and operations persists.