AAL2's Kennedy Emergency: A Useful Lesson
Like everyone else reading the details of American Airlines Flight 2's emergency declaration at JFK last week, I've been made privy only to the sketchy details. But from my perspective as an air traffic controller, my Monday morning armchair judgment is that AAL2 may have been a bit heavy handed.
Furthermore, from what we know, the situation seems to indicate a lack of planning or awareness by the AAL2 crew. And as a controller, I see this sort of thing happen occasionally. I find it difficult to understand how AAL2 arrived at JFK with apparently no knowledge of the surface winds, or no knowledge of the operational limitations of the airport and at the same time, apparently facing a fuel situation that was so critical he had no choice but to declare emergency and exercises the command authority granted under such a declaration.
We don't have the transcript of his conversation with New York TRACON or New York ARTCC. Did he express concern at any point prior to his contact with JFK ATCT? Ten miles or less from the airport, he surely must have known he would encounter the crosswind. Did the fuel situation make an emergency declaration inevitable? I don't know. And if somehow he had tried to make his concerns known prior to this 11th hour audio transcript and was brushed aside or otherwise ignored by ATC, then I will have to reverse my initial reaction.
But what I do know is that in my career as a controller, I have occasionally dealt with commercial pilots who paid no attention to critical information contained in the ATIS broadcast, shamelessly claiming to have current info and then expressing shock/outrage/general unpreparedness when confronted with the reality of the situation.
I know the ATIS at major airports contains a lot of information, but listening for an altimeter setting and runway in use and ignoring the rest can leave a pilot woefully ignorant of pertinent details. I have also noted that many--perhaps even most--pilots are unwilling to assertively make requests of ATC, in spite of their explicit right to do so and our mandate, as controllers, to go to every length possible to honor such requests.
Obviously the Captain of AAL2 had no such qualms, but the way he went about it suggests he did not fully understand his right to reject an unsafe clearance and request an alternate one. I don't doubt that the captain of AAL2 felt he was in an unsafe situation and I commend him for not "going with the flow" and attempting what he obviously believed would have been a foolhardy approach. But I also believe he overreacted.
All he needed to do was to stand his ground and demand the runway he felt was safest, thus putting the onus on the controller without binding the controller's hands by declaring an emergency and potentially forcing other aircraft to abandon their approaches. The fact that he felt this was his only recourse suggests to me that a lack of preparedness may have played a role. It could be we're listening only to the tail end of a saga that began much earlier and paints a more favorable picture of the crew of AAL2.
We'll know more about that later. In the meantime, pilots can draw two immediate lessons from this: Be prepared and, when necessary, be assertive in refusing clearances that you deem unsafe.
Jason Wilson is an air traffic controller at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.