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Investigation into Aer Lingus Gatwick incident finds shortcomings with airport procedures

A vehicle was cleared onto the runway in front of an Aer Lingus jet which was travelling at over 110km/h.

Image: Shutterstock/Fasttailwind

AN INVESTIGATION INTO an incident involving a packed Aer Lingus jet at Gatwick Airport has identified shortcomings in runway inspection procedures at the airport as well as the management of an internal review conducted after the incident.

The UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has today issued its report into the incident where a vehicle was cleared onto an active runway at Gatwick in front of the Aer Lingus jet which was still travelling at over 110km/h after landing.

The incident, on 3 February 2018, was classed as ‘serious’ by the AAIB and involved Aer Lingus flight EI-4211 which had just landed with 164 passengers and a crew of 6 on board.

The 15-page AAIB report outlines how after landing, while the Airbus A320-200 jet was still decelerating, an airport vehicle was cleared to enter the runway behind the aircraft.

The plane was still on the runway at a reported speed of about 60kts (111km/h) and approaching a Rapid Exit Taxiway (RET) when the vehicle entered the runway and began travelling towards it.

The Aer Lingus jet safely vacated the runway at the RET and changed to the air traffic control (ATC) ground frequency whilst the airport vehicle, having driven along the runway, also vacated at same taxiway.

The AAIB report states: “The aircraft commander had been surprised to see the vehicle entering the runway and believed the vehicle’s clearance had been conditional on the aircraft vacating first. As a result, the commander submitted a safety report.”

As a result of the commander submitting a report, the ATC provider for Gatwick Airport conducted its own investigation.

That probe concluded that:

The (flight) crew had misunderstood the clearance to the airport operations staff which had not been conditional on the aircraft vacating the runway before they could enter and, that the crew were not familiar with the airport and runway exits available which suggests they were also not aware of the standard runway inspection procedures at the unit.

The ATC report added: “There were no issues with the runway inspection process at Gatwick in general, or with this particular event and, the runway inspection had been conducted appropriately by the ATCO and Ops vehicle, and so the investigation is therefore closed.”

A further report on the incident was completed by the airport’s Airside Operations Department. This largely reflected the ATC report with the ‘root cause’ section only quoting the ATC report findings. It included the same conclusions and also noted that the investigation was closed.

The AAIB investigation concluded however: “It is apparent from the investigation that both ATC and the airside operations teams were striving to carry out runway inspections under the prevailing working environment. There was, however, evidence of a lack of understanding of how each discipline’s work impacted on others operating at the airport and had potentially normalised procedures that would otherwise have been considered undesirable, or at worst unacceptable.”

“The ATC and airport investigations were triggered by the pilot declaring his intention to file a safety report. The ATC report, subsequently adopted by the airport operations department, saw nothing wrong in what happened. This was reinforced by subsequent interviews with ATC staff and was in direct contrast to the opinion of the airline operator involved and of other airline operators, when asked,” the report states.

gatwick Gatwick Airport Source: Shutterstock/Andrea Izzotti

Senior pilot managers of two airlines based at Gatwick both confirmed to the AAIB that their pilots would also not be aware of runway inspection procedures at the airport as the information was not published in any normally available official documents. They also confirmed that they would not consider it acceptable for vehicles to enter a runway ahead of an aircraft until the aircraft was physically vacating the runway.

The AAIB investigation concluded: “Gatwick Airport operates at high intensity to maximise the use of its single runway. This demands that airport operations, ATC and aircraft all operate as efficiently as possible if the declared runway capacity is to be attained. This capacity is not imposed but is set by the airport itself. In setting the capacity it is important to balance maximising the number of aircraft operating to the airport with the safety of the operation itself.

This investigation indicates that the pressure of meeting the operating targets has had a direct effect on undertaking runway inspections both safely and effectively. Many of the measures taken to redress the issues outlined in this report have yet to be completed and continued oversight and regular reviews in this area at all levels should be maintained,” the report states.

The AAIB made one safety recommendation in its report.

The AAIB also confirmed that in the twelve months prior to the incident, there had been three other runway incursion events involving vehicles at Gatwick Airport.

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Patrick Flynn

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