On April 17, the day before a runway incursion at Reagan National Airport in Washington made headlines, a Swiss Air crew aborted their takeoff at JFK because there were four aircraft crossing the runway from which they’d been cleared to take off. “Swiss 17K Heavy, rejecting takeoff. Traffic on the runway,” the Swiss Air pilot reported to JFK Tower on ATC recordings compiled by VASAviation in the animation above. Another controller on a different frequency cleared the other four aircraft to cross Runway 4L at roughly the same time as the Swiss heavy was starting its roll.

The Swiss pilot most likely spotted a Delta Boeing 767 that had just arrived from Nice, France, crossing the runway on Taxiway H, which is about midway on the 12,079-foot runway. The Swiss plane got about a quarter of the way down the runway on its aborted takeoff. Meanwhile, three other aircraft crews were told to cross the runway beyond that first Delta flight. After aborting the takeoff, the Swiss flight exited the runway at Taxiway K3 and was allowed to turn around there and depart from that taxiway intersection to avoid having to taxi all the way back to the end of the runway, which would have required it to refuel. It took off six minutes after the abort.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Fortunately, everything worked out. Not a pilot but aren’t the various controllers supposed to be working together, especially at JFK? Why have there been a spate of theser incursions lately?

    • Interesting comment as I hadn’t thought of it. But yes, with what we know, it could easily be interpreted as this being a new normal- scary!

  2. Borrowing from the title of another ‘Daily News’ item here … maybe the FAA oughta mandate that IT start using SMS. Maybe Boeing needs to add a third crew position … a “lookout” high up in the tail of their airliners.

        • We don’t know yet – it’s pretty clear that one or more controllers likely made mistakes. One focus of SMS is to discover what those mistakes were and correct them so that there is low probability of recurrence. Obviously prevention is another focus, but mistakes were clearly made so the SMS question is “why?” Human error actually says nothing at all about “what the FAA really thinks of SMS” nor does SMS eliminate the potential for human error. Thankfully, the Swiss crew was paying attention and was able to compensate for other errors. In the end one would expect that there will be policy and procedures changes to address the mistakes made.

  3. The FAA is critically short-staffed having a net gain nationally last year of what – a dozen controllers? And the FAA says it met is hiring goals last year. Facilities being short causes lots of problems and the lowering of standards is a big one.

  4. Can someone explain how taxiing back for a take-off would require refueling, but an intersection take-off would not? Is there any way possible that they would start a flight so critically low on fuel? That is scarier than the incident!

    • There might have been a longer queue/taxiway congestion for the return to the beginning of the runway. As about 25-30% of any extra/discretionary fuel taken on a flight from the US to Europe is used up just for carrying that fuel along, long-range flights do not typically carry a lot of reserve fuel if the destination WX is good. Zürich has three independent runways and so doesn’t even require planning with an alternate if the weather is above a certain minimum. Don’t forget that after crossing the Atlantic there are lots of places to divert to if conditions are worse than forecast/planned.

      • Couple things. US carriers have to have an alternate airport on their flight release if the flight is over six hours. There are two different types of reserve fuel on an international flight plan. Basically there is a requirement for a 10% enroute reserve, based on enroute fuel burn, and a 30 minute reserve fuel. You cannot use either of these fuel amounts for any phase of flight planning prior to flight departure. You may be thinking of holding fuel or additional fuel which is not mandatory, and could be used to recompute a flight plan prior to departure. You could also look for a closer in alternate and use the fuel savings there to lower your required takeoff fuel. This would require coordination with their dispatcher and would take some time to run the numbers. These rules are for US 121 carriers but I have to think most European carriers would have similar requirements.

    • They have plenty of fuel with reserve to make the flight, but don’t have a lot of margin on top of that for extended taxiing including an aborted takeoff. They won’t takeoff without the proper amount of fuel as that cuts into their required reserve.

  5. One runway should be controlled by one controller or at least a team of two sitting very close together.

    • I agree. Current US procedure is for ground control to direct all movement on the ground but for tower control to issue takeoff clearances. Perhaps it would be better if ground control directed all ground traffic except any on the active runway, and tower controlled any movement on the active runway, including clearance to cross. That would obviously take a few more seconds and serious coordination, but the increased safety might be worth that.

      • I’ve worked at three major US ATCTs, and all of those do what you suggest: Ground Control switches an aircraft to Tower for a runway crossing, after which the aircraft is returned to GC frequency. The only exception was for closed runways. Each facility will have their own procedures; my first ATCT was a less busy airport, and there the GC could coordinate with the tower controller to cross a runway. At that facility, there were physical memory aids used to designate who had “control” of each runway.

    • Two weeks ago I heard a lead controller from the the Southern California region talk about conditions on his shifts. He reported that traffic is increasing steadily in high-density areas while staffing problems increase. Ability to provide optional services like flight following continues to decline. Although he did not say so directly, the impression that I got from his comments was that ATC is rapidly losing the ability to provide a safe air environment. This is happening at the same time that EVTOL short range commuter planes will be introduced in very high traffic density zones. Joby and Archer have contracts to start these vertical flights from airports like JFK as soon as 2025 to satisfy investors who want their money back with profit. No plans or regs for the EVTOL aircraft have been announced so far and proposals for safe introduction of these radically different aircraft have not been revealed. Is this a crisis? I fear that we will find out soon.

  6. Is it normal for JFK/US to clear traffic to land with “traffic taxiing on the runway” and not really near the place it has been cleared to exit”?

    • Yes. You can anticipate the required separation when issuing the landing clearance. The required separation in this case is that the plane on the runway (roll-out, back-taxi, crossing) is clear of the runway by the time the arrival crosses the landing threshold.

    • Siegfried, it’s very common in the US, even at my very busy class C airport. The theory is that the taxiing traffic will have plenty of time to clear the runway before the arrival is over the threshold, and that the tower controller will monitor the taxiing aircraft’s progress and cancel the landing clearance if a potential conflict develops. I’ve had several clearances cancelled in the last 10 years. Another option sometimes used is the approach controller clears one for the approach, then instructs the pilot to contact tower. Tower may then come back with “continue RNAV 20 approach” (for example) but not issue a landing clearance until he or she is confident the runway will be clear of obstructions.
      You can see the potential for problems developing with both these techniques, but it’s all done in the name of “keeping up with the traffic demands”.

      • An aircraft going around will burn a LOT more fuel than one holding or taxiing. And don’t forget that he has to get back into the approach queue. And aircraft cleared to taxi across an active runway should ALWAYS expedite. But I’ve only been doing this for 51+ years, so what do I know…?

  7. Yet another runway incursion. How many more before we see a major accident? Juan Browne did a review of this incident on his channel. Two ground controllers on different frequencies not coordinating with each other seemed to be the cause of the problem. Aviation lost a lot very experienced pilots and air traffic controllers as a result of the pandemic. It takes time to build that back into the system. We all need to look out for each other as we build that back into the system.

    • (I’m commenting too much today, but what the heck) On August 3, 1981, 13,000 controller members of PATCO went on strike protesting long work hours and high stress (sound familiar?). I remember that strike well — 7000 flights were cancelled over the next two days. On August 5, President Reagan fired all 11,359 who had not returned to work, and the FAA has been trying to rebuild ATC ever since. Their strike complaints remain unmet, if not worse than before.

      • I remember that well. I was laid off (furloughed) from my piloting job with Rio Airways in Killeen, TX. Times were also tough back then which many do not realize. In the airline business, inflation and higher interest rates.

      • Isn’t it about time to stop blaming current problems on something that happened 43 years ago?

        • “ Their strike complaints remain unmet, if not worse than before.”

          Because after 43 years, the FAA keeps doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

      • That’s an incredible stretch as that was over 40 years ago, the current issues have started in the past 2-3 years.

        The Covid and related government reactions and requirements pushed a substantial amount of experienced people out of positions, including ATC, that aren’t easily replaced.

          • I vote that we stop blaming “the pandemic” when the pandemic, or its consequences, stop being the cause. That won’t be for a while, because 1) the pandemic continues, COVID-19 is still making people sick and disabled; and 2) the consequences of COVID-19 sickness and disability on organisations and systems can persist long after the cause is removed.

            An anology: when an crash happens on a busy freeway, it can cause traffic to back up. Once the crash is cleared, the traffic congestion can persist for quite a while because the consequences of the problem themselves cause consequences.

  8. Gee, where’s the knuckle dragging troglodyte with his DEI comment. Oh, it was a white male controller. Must be something wrong with the SYSTEM.

    • This article makes no reference to the background of these particular controllers. However, you are aware the FAA is being sued in federal court for rigging their hiring process so black applicants can cheat on their aptitude tests in order to be moved to the front of the line, right? [Rojas v. FAA, No. 17-17349 (9th Cir. 2019)]

    • I admit it … I WAS gonna bring up the DEI issue but bit my typing fingers THIS time 🙂 |

      Maybe they should hire some “judicial involved people” to fill the ATC shortages?
      (Google Sheetz Lawsuit by EEOC)

  9. “FAA’s diversity push includes focus on hiring people with ‘severe intellectual’ and ‘psychiatric’ disabilities”, NY Post, 1/14/24 Fact is, the FAA can not hire the best of the best these days. It shows. I prefer driving these days, when not flying my own airplane.

    • Your comment is a misrepresentation of the facts. Sure, the FAA is hiring disabled persons, as is required by all US employers under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (the ADA was signed into law by George HW Bush 33 years ago). I wonder, does the FAA have any employees other than air traffic controllers?

      The part you left out of your comment is that the FAA also stated (on the same web page where they announced their interest in hiring of disabled persons) that such persons can be hired only if “The applicant is physically qualified to do the work without hazard to self or to others.” I’m wondering if the prestigious news organization you quoted failed to mention that detail.

      “Fact is” you didn’t present the all the facts, just the ones that consistent with your pre-existing viewpoint.

      • How can any rational person contend that anyone should be hired as an air traffic controller who has any disqualifying condition, or, may have such a condition? The friends and relatives of people killed in fatal aircraft accidents caused by unqualified controllers should be consoled by lectures on how important “equity” is in hiring! DEI might be fine in hiring librarians, since the worst consequence of mistakes is that someone cannot find the book that they want, but hundreds of lives can be lost due to one mistake by a controller. Only the best qualified applicants should ever be hired as controllers.

    • I worked with a high quad for a decade so this this kind of misrepresentation is quite upsetting. He needed a larger cubical for his electric wheelchair and space for his dog but he was a superb employee. Snopes did a quick analysis of this B.S. True but irrelevant. The ADA has unintended consequences, it actually decreased employment for disabled people, but they are not risky employees. The rule is you only need to hire them if they can do the job as well as an able bodied person if they get reasonable accommodations. My colleague would be unable to staff the tower but he was an excellent IT programmer – something the FAA needs rather badly.

  10. Another symptom of a diseased general aviation industry. Need a more healthy and numerous farm league for the big show to get better talent and experience. Just MLB found, population shift has left rural America too small and underfunded, so the farm league teams are now found in larger cities.

      • It’s a HUGE problem. We need the remaining airports protected including those that can be reopened. We need ASTM or something similar to get the FAA out of the business of holding up light aircraft innovation. And, we need some tort reform and/or NTSB findings to be admissible in court for light aircraft. If someone wants to use an aircraft for flying paying passengers, then those aircraft can get the FAA treatment.

        I know it’s not all likely to happen, but we first must figure out what needs to be done, then we can maybe get going. The AOPA method has given us the slow decline of GA. We cannot keep it up.

  11. The SwissAir crew, now with hot brakes from the abort that lengthens balanced field length, chose to take no time for cooling while getting a little extra fuel and instead chose an immediate intersection takeoff. Glad it worked.

  12. It is Always up to the PIC whether to accept a clearance, or to change plans if something isn’t working.
    “Controllers” don’t “Control” anything, they sequence traffic.
    A PIC can refuse a clearance, abort a landing or takeoff, or do whatever is required.
    A “Landing Clearance” doesn’t require the aircraft to land;
    A “Takeoff Clearance” doesn’t require the aircraft to takeoff.
    The PIC must inform the “Controller” if circumstances require refusal of a “Clearance” of a change in compliance; the PIC is the ultimate arbiter at all times.
    Most ATC personnel are excellent professionals, but their hind parts are not on the line.
    As for the comments on staffing;
    There was someone staffing Ground, someone staffing Tower; there was no shortage of personnel in this case, a mistake was made; that happens.
    With ADS-B, traffic is visible in equipped aircraft, and all Airliners are so equipped.
    When TCAS first came out, “Controllers” fought it, because they didn’t want their errors to be exposed;
    TCAS saved myself and my customers more than once; ADS-B is even better.
    Total vigilance is crucial in all aviation personnel, from ground personnel to ATC personnel, to aircrews.
    Many times, a “Save” has been made by the lowliest person in that collective group!

  13. The FAA is just hoping to kick this rusted can a little further down the runway without bending too much aluminum. I’m sure some sleep-deprived graduate student is hard at work on a LLM/AI that can handle the task. If you get those stochastic bags of salty water out of the cockpit, it’s an NP-complete problem. Remember, subways used to have “conductors” who actually controlled the train.

    • Yup, and those trains are on tracks. All they gotta do is start and stop.

      I recall that Airbus that resolutely flew into the trees with a load of pilots and, I think, reporters, because it (its software) determined that the plane was landing and, by God, that’s what it was going to do, despite the pilot’s efforts to pull up.

      Since I have a car, a motorcycle, and three aircraft, I’ll never get on a commercial plane again, especially if it’s AI controlled.

      • What you recall is a myth, initiated by the pilot who crashed a properly functioning airplane while he was showing off flight envelope protection safety features that he had overridden. What happened on that flight is exactly what happened when Sully pancaked into the Hudson River decades later in 2009.

        Airbus’ logic for stall prevention by not allowing the airplane to exceed the critical angle of attack comes in three stages. First, the flight computer will attempt to drop the nose to keep the angle of attack below the ALPHA PROTect value. If the pilot continues to apply back pressure on the sidestick (as the show off pilot did—deliberately, and Sully did—inadvertently), the computer recognizes that the pilot may be attempting a go around or terrain avoidance maneuver and it commands TOGA power.

        But the connection to the throttles can be manually disabled (which is what the show off pilot had done) or the engines may not produce the thrust commanded (as tends to happen when they have ingested a few Canadian geese). As the airspeed continues to bleed off, the AOA increases until it reaches ALPHA MAX (which is what the air show pilot intended, to maximize the spectacle for the crowds).

        When APLHA MAX is reached, the computer ignores the pilot’s backpressure input on the sidestick and lowers the nose to keep the airplane from exceeding ALPHA MAX and stalling. But the airplane now begins to lose altitude with descent rate much higher than a normal gliding approach to land. Note: with the AOA at ALPHA MAX, there is no further pitch up possible without stalling the airplane, i.e. there is no airspeed margin and no flare is possible to slow the descent rate before “touchdown.” An increase in airspeed could be obtained by commanding a thrust increase (which the air show pilot did but it takes about 8 seconds for the engines to spool up) or by dropping the nose further (which Sully didn’t do due to proximity to the water).

        And so both airplanes pancaked in at a high rate of descent. One went into the woods beyond the airport, tearing up the airplane and starting a fire, killing a few people and seriously injuring others. The other smacked into the Hudson, ripping up the fuselage and seriously injuring a flight attendant, flooding the aft fuselage and jeopardizing the subsequent rescue, but everyone survived.

        Hopefully you understand and operate your three airplanes better and don’t allow myths to influence your flying decisions.

        • P.S.: It wasn’t a load of pilots on that flight, but mostly children who had been invited for a joy ride.

  14. Imagine the results had the visibility been 1/2 mile or so. 4L would have been more like a bowling alley.

  15. If only the controllers had ADSB or some sort of ground radar available to them at major airports this sort of mix up might be avoided. /S

    • Damn! A lot of comments from me today.

      The controllers at JFK have ASDE-X. Look it up. I worked for the company that developed and deployed it.

      And that’s why, at major airports, they tell you not to turn the transponder off for ground operations.

  16. Unmentioned here seem to be two very important words for every pilot:
    The Swissair pilot had it and changed a possible disaster into a semi-nonevent. There’ve been a couple of similar incidents in the last few years where the pilots involved “had access”, so to speak, with the developing problem via being on the same frequency but what they heard didn’t register.

  17. [email protected], I am studying for my Aircraft Dispatcher license. I was ATCS for 22 years, and did not know that a dispatcher has the same responsibilities as the captain. Part of the job is figuring how much fuel the aircraft needs to complete the flight, go to their alternate if they have to, and have 45 minutes left. The dispatcher has to monitor the entire flight, and if there is a delay for any reason, refigure the fuel needed and advise crew.

  18. [email protected] I am studying for my Aircraft Dispatcher license. I was ATCS for 22 years, and did not know that a dispatcher has the same responsibilities as the captain. Part of the job is figuring how much fuel the aircraft needs to complete the flight, go to their alternate if they have to, and have 45 minutes left. The dispatcher has to monitor the entire flight, and if there is a delay for any reason, refigure the fuel needed and advise crew. If this is a long flight, say JFK to LAX, the dispatcher may need to plan for an intermediate stop, like maybe ORD, to get fuel, then do all the flight planning and paperwork required for the original flight. And don’t forget to tell the captain