A possible easyJet – United collision was averted in Paris, in part thanks to a fast-thinking crew, telling their colleagues to go around.
The incident took place just over a year ago, at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport (LFPG) in France. The report was released last week. One of the aircraft was a United Airlines Boeing 787. The jet’s crew were performing flight UA-57, from Newark (KEWR), in the United States. They were in the process of landing in this incident. The other aircraft was an easyJet Airbus A320, about to take off for flight U2-3955 to Malaga (LEMG), Spain.
The pandemic had changed the pace of operations at Charles de Gaulle airport, as it had everywhere in 2020. The report would highlight this as one of the reasons why the easyJet and United airliners got so close. But at its core, the incident began with a simple slip of the tongue from the local controller.
With easyJet about to line up, the local controller at the Paris airport cleared United to land on runway 09R. This was an error. The controller meant to say “09L”, which is the runway the United crew were on approach to. At this point, the United 787 was at an altitude of 1,410 feet. Nine seconds later, the United crew responded: “Understand cleared to land 09R, side-step 09R UAL57”.
United And easyJet Coming Closer
The controller did not reply to United, with attention now switching to the easyJet flight, about to depart Paris. At 05:17:23 (GMT), 25 secs after United’s transmission, the controller cleared easyJet to enter runway 09R. The easyJet crew was using an intersection, further down the 3,600 metre (11,811-foot) runway. At 05:17:26, the United crew disengaged the autopilot and started the side-step maneuver, at 890 feet of altitude.
At 05:17:50, the easyJet crew entered the runway, checking for traffic but initially misreading the position of the United flight, on the Paris sky. Twenty seconds later, they realized what was happening. They transmitted: “Tower there is a traffic landing 09R”. And they immediately followed this with “Go around 09R go around”.
According to their FDR, the United crew then hit TOGA, just as the controller instructed them to go around. RIMCAS (Runway Incursion Management and Collision Avoidance System) was triggered at this time, as well. The United 787 got as low as 80 feet, but then cleared the easyJet Airbus by about 300 feet.
An interesting factor is where this controller was sitting, in the tower. The normal position that the local controller would use for this traffic, appeared to be out of commission. So the controller had to sit at another position, where the view of the threshold for runway 09R wasn’t clear. This could have hidden the interrelationship of the United and easyJet aircraft, at the crucial moment.
BEA, the French aviation safety authority, rated the United – easyJet event as a serious incident. And in their final report, they listed the mental slip of the controller as the probable cause. But they also added the following, as contributing factors:
- The management at this moment of the traffic mainly on runway 09R (one landing, two departures and two crossings)
- The controller’s concern related to the change of position from the LOC NE position to the LOC NW position
- The lack of practice of the controller, linked to the decrease in traffic during the period of the COVID-19 health crisis
- The use of the non-standard phrase “understand” by the crew of the Boeing 787, instead of “confirm”, which may have got more attention from the controller.
The report already received some criticism, in particular for the last point above. Some saw it as a way to shift blame to the United crew, for the wording they used. However, it is worth mentioning that BEA lists this as only the fourth of four contributing factors, with a separate cause. And the point was that the word “confirm” would have highlighted that United’s transmission wasn’t a ‘mere’ readback.
After the incident between the United and easyJet aircraft, authorities at Charles de Gaulle took several steps. They included changes in roles, to improve flight monitoring and clarify the positions and roles of different controllers. The report also pays a compliment to the vigilance of both United and easyJet crews, and their quick reactions.
For the full incident report (in French, an English version should come later) go HERE
Spyros Georgilidakis has degrees in Business Enterprise and Management. He has 14 years of experience in the hospitality and travel industries, along with a passion for all-things-aviation and travel logistics. He is also an experienced writer and editor for on-line publications, and a licensed professional drone pilot.