AAL2's Kennedy Emergency: A Useful Lesson

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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.

Comments (24)

Gee, a controller that blames the entire episode on the pilot. Imagine that.

Pilots don't have access to policies that artificially force use of runways that are out of limits, nor does ATIS that is often close to an hour out of currency reflect expectations on landing. I would imagine that the ATIS did not reflect the accurate wind gust information, or that based on years of experience, the AA Captain was probably listening to the tower freq many miles out trying to ascertain if the winds were varying within limits to make a landing legally feasible.

Also, I am astonished that you would not understand that a pilot would expect runways to be swapped around to favor landings within the operational limitations of his aircraft. You know, perhaps take care of aircraft that are low on fuel and make the ones that are sitting on the ground take delays?

We've seen this time and again. ATC management (not the operational controller) does things for their convenience, even if it means a divert.

This wasn't a controller issue, so don't take it that way. It was a policy problem that will continue as long as ATC has no incentive to take more traffic.

Posted by: Max Buffet | May 15, 2010 6:25 PM    Report this comment

@Harry : Imagine this : this pilot agrees with the controller's opinion pretty much A to Z. In any case, controllers are my good buddies. Cowboy pilots are not. ATC and traffic management sure can be improved upon, but declaring a bogus emergency and refusing to be vectored is not the way to move the system forward.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | May 16, 2010 6:02 AM    Report this comment

BTW : should read Dan Sedman comment on the original editorial from Paul Bertorelli. He seems to have first-hand info on the incident that offers a little more perspective on this.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | May 16, 2010 6:06 AM    Report this comment

Peter, agree. Dan Sedman said it well too.

Harry, just FYI, though ATC controllers, with influence from management, determine the runways in use (which ones will be used for departures, which for arrivals, and which for both), but must defer to the pilot. I've clipped an excerpt from the controller's bible, FAA JO 7110.65, 3-5-1. Pay particular attention to 3-5-1(a)NOTE2. Pilot advises ATC (hopefully as early as possible, like maybe with Approach!), ATC gives pilot the runway he requests.

a. Except where a “runway use” program is in
effect, use the runway most nearly aligned with the
wind when 5 knots or more or the “calm wind”
runway when less than 5 knots (set tetrahedron
accordingly) unless use of another runway:
1. Will be operationally advantageous, or
2. Is requested by the pilot.

1. If a pilot prefers to use a runway different from that specified, the pilot is expected to advise ATC.
2. At airports where a “runway use” program is established, ATC will assign runways deemed to have the least noise impact. If in the interest of safety a runway different from that specified is preferred, the pilot is expected to advise ATC accordingly. ATC will honor such requests and advise pilots when the requested runway is noise sensitive.

Posted by: Don Desfosse | May 17, 2010 8:11 AM    Report this comment

I don't quite remember. Did the captain actually declare an emergency, or state that it would be necessary if he was not given his runway of choice?

Posted by: Frank Loeffler | May 17, 2010 8:25 AM    Report this comment

I feel that a significant amount of accidents close around the airport are caused by the PIC hearing the ATIS but not listening. How many times have we missed critical info because we weren't really concerned by that certain data point? I suspect that the crew of AAL2 were complacent because they'd flown this leg so many times, and didn't really take the wind info and figure out the relationship to the active runway. Not a professional thing to do, but I do understand. The controller apparently denied their request out of hand, forcing the crew to either declare the emergency or argue with the controller ..... either way AAL2 would screw up the approaches in progress ..... so they chose the 'emergency'. Not knowing more, all this is conjecture, but I think crew boxed themselves in and used the 'emergency' to get out of the box. All of us need to really pay attention and think of the info we're given. I know I'm guilty of missing clues. Just remember that an old pilot is one that survives all his (or her) stupid mistakes.

Posted by: Linn Walters | May 17, 2010 8:39 AM    Report this comment

One must use all his/her senses when investigating an incident and from the words and tone of the pilot of AAL2 I read an angry pilot who is determined to get his way NOW!

I look forward to hearing his reasoning for his actions, maybe he is justified.

Ray - 25 years in the tower

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | May 17, 2010 8:59 AM    Report this comment

I am a retired air traffic controller from Houston Tracon. I would like to comment on Harry's statement that "ATC management does things for their convenience". While I'm not here to defend FAA management, the truth is that it's often the Airline management (read: NOT the pilot) that puts extreme amounts of pressure on the FAA to land in certain runway configurations. This is to reduce their delays and so that--as Harry put it-- "ATC can take more traffic". This will frequently leave the Flow Control Unit in direct conflict with the airlines over safety.

But my point here is that the pilot ALWAYS has the right to refuse a runway. ATC can't FORCE you to do anything. If you deem a runway unsafe to land because of the wind, so be it. But don't wait until you're inside the marker to tell anyone about it. And if by chance the wind didn't pick up until that last second (highly unlikely), then why couldn't you go around and get resequenced so that everyone would have time to make the adjustment? Fuel you say? Well then why didn't the Captain advise of his minimum fuel situation? And remember, minimum fuel only means that the pilot cannot accept any undue delay, not that he can't go around. So the next level would have been emergency fuel, and if that's the case, then we've opened a whole new can of worms.

Without all the facts I don't think any of us can say for sure what transpired here. But it would appear to me that this pilot made a very poor call.

Posted by: jere gardner | May 17, 2010 9:13 AM    Report this comment

Just a comment regarding 'listening' to the ATIS. Most airliners arriving or departing most north american airports will print out the digital ATIS on their ACARS, so it is available continuously in the flight deck. Keeping it updated can be a challenge. Generally, if the ATIS is changed mid-hour, we may only find out at a frequency change when the new controller informs us of the current code. Some controllers are proactive and announce when a new ATIS is issued. Without a time-line, it's hard to know when the crew would have found the winds too great to land.

Posted by: Peter Buckley | May 17, 2010 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I don't want to judge fellow pilots on the issue because I wasn't on the flight deck in their situation.

I do want to comment on the use of ATIS by ATC.....too much useless information is included on the broadcast(do we really need to know there are birds in the area, or the airport is noise sensitive?) These are givens! Too much information makes us stop listening. After all notams were checked and printed before the flight.Only last minute information should be included on the ATIS(runway closers,windshear advisories, etc.)

All that we need are " Just the facts" ceiling,vis, wind,precip. Let's get back to the original intent of ATIS.

Posted by: Jerry Knaust | May 17, 2010 11:09 AM    Report this comment

My recollection of the sequence was that the cross winds were within limits until the controller announced it was over 30kts. At that point the pilot told the controller the CW exceeded limits and requested the alternate runway.

At that point there was a breakdown in communication. The controller responded he had "passed along" the request. Probably meaning he had to coordinate and would advise.

What the pilot probably understood was "I am telling the higher ups you are being a jerk and I am not changing your RW."

At that point meaningful communication stopped because they were hearing different interpretations of the same words.

The pilot was hearing a controller who was putting his aircraft in danger; the controller heard a pilot who didn't like delay.

Further communications were ambiguous enough for both sides to miss interpret because they were based on different understandings of the situation.

This situation would have been avoided if the controller had said "I have your request and will coordinate the change of RW. Maintain heading and altitude for now." That's a long speech for any NY controller, but it would have been much clearer to the crew.

Right or wrong the pilot ensured the safety of his aircraft based on his interpretation of the situation. I'll fly with that guy anytime.

Posted by: Snow Man | May 18, 2010 1:05 AM    Report this comment

Snow Man, you are right on!!

BTW, I re-read my closing remarks in my prior post, no controller or pilot are perfect is what I meant. Poor choice of words on my part.

Posted by: JAMES CARNEY | May 18, 2010 10:33 AM    Report this comment

The airplane landed in once piece with all souls accounted for so Bravo Mr Pilot - I hope you're up front next time I'm flying a scheduled airline route. There's no sense in a pilot being submissive to ATC in a situation such as this, the controller is there to help, not to dictate, the pilot has the final perogative right or wrong, and in this case he was right irrespective of procedure because everything turned out ok. ATC works for the pilots, the pilots do not work for ATC - there's no such thing as an overreaction where flight safety is concerned.

Posted by: Peter Sharpe | May 19, 2010 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Wilson kicked off this round of armchair speculation by blaming the incident partially on not hearing ATIS. Granted, I've seen pilots listen to and not hear ATIS but in this case does anyone know what the ATIS was during the time under discussion? If so please share. If not you are speculating.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | May 19, 2010 1:42 PM    Report this comment

Having worked JFK Approach for 6 years at the old NYCIFRR, I've encountered several nearly identical situations to the AA2 incident. Based on my expereinces, runway selection is usually based on NOISE ABATEMENT, not the wind. The next event is usually the pilot requesting a different runway when after the sequence is established by the final controller. The system works best when the pilot & controller work as a team. Pilots - spit that request out for a different RWY as soon as you check in with APC. When you get a frequency change to another sector in the APC area, state it again and question the new controller; "how's my landing RWY request coming." Some of you old (read RETIRED) type might recall arriving at JFK @ 15,000' over ELLIS/ EMPIRE INT requested the "CROWBAR". Every request I received during my time at JFK for the CROWBAR was honored if WX and TFC allowed. But for you young whipper-snappers, it was a different time when the pilot's and ATC types worked together as a team. A simple statement by the flightcrew at initial check-in: AA2 unable to accept RWY 22 due to wind and weight requirements would have prevented the entire mess & press. BTW, I speak with a bit extra knowledge as I finished up my Gov't gareer as a Senior Air Safety Investigator with the NTSB and believe me, I've seen more than my share of busted airplanes, bodies, and careers based on simple miss-communications. WANT SOMETHING SPECIAL - ANNOUNCE YOUR NEEDS EARLY AND CLEARLY!

Posted by: William O'Rourke | May 19, 2010 5:18 PM    Report this comment


If I read the timeline correctly, the crew requested a change right after they were advised that the CW had increased beyond the a/c limits.

Don't know how they could have announced the need any earlier....

Posted by: Snow Man | May 19, 2010 10:00 PM    Report this comment

I like Snow Man's take on the issue and would like to add a few thoughts of my own.

Listening to the radio conversation I became instantly stressed (as did the pilot) to hear the emergency declaration be seemingly taken lightly/not seriously. Regardless of the reason the pilot used the "e" word, whether false or true, whether self-contrived or from circumstances beyond his control, a pilot has the authority and RESPONSIBILITY to declare an emergency when he feels it is necessary. ATC should, upon hearing the declaration, do everything in their power to accommodate that pilot/aircraft. Period. That's the relationship that needs to happen. The controller of course has other duties during this time and should accomplish them but they are secondary to the emergency.

The pilot will have to answer for his actions but so will the controller.

Posted by: Chris Parks | May 20, 2010 9:01 PM    Report this comment

If anyone believes that the pilot has the final authority must live in a cave. Might be the final authority but not the final say. I have flown professionally for forty years. I declared an emergency on departure out of ORD and requested runway 14R because of winds. Did so because my DC8 had total hydralic failure. Controller said those RWYS were closed to landing traffic just departures.

Posted by: Stephen Myers | May 24, 2010 9:22 AM    Report this comment

The key to the air traffic system is everyone displaying professionalism. As a pilot, I usually take the side of the pilot, but in this particular case I thought the professionalism on the pilot's side could have been better. The statement was made by the pilot that he had declared an emergency three times, yet when I re-listened to the recording, I only heard it actually declared once. Thus, there was antagonism on the pilot's side. Yes, if you are low fuel with many souls on board, absolutely declare an emergency, but to do so without communicating that somewhere along the line lacks professionalism. I'm sure many other aircraft in line for landing or take off that day were compromised as a result.

Posted by: john wright | May 24, 2010 9:49 AM    Report this comment

John Wright hit the nail on the head.
As I listened to the tape it seemed to me that the pilot didn't declare an emergency in the first or second transmission. He only said that the pilot would have to declare an emergency indicating futurity. After the second transmission from the aircraft the controller issued a heading to fly that I interpreted as the start of an effort to provide the aircraft with a landing on the requested runway. The controller appeared to be treating the issue as an emergency even though the pilot hadn’t declared an emergency, as the controller is required to do. I assumed that the controller was turning the aircraft to place it in a position to join traffic on the requested runway. This was a bad case of miscommunication.
It should be noted that I am a retired controller. As I recall our handbook required us to treat a situation as an emergency even if the pilot hadn’t declared one. The controller’s actions in this instance appear to follow that guideline.

Posted by: Ed Freeman | May 24, 2010 11:14 AM    Report this comment

Just wanted to say thanks to those who provided feedback to this blog, it has given me a lot of insight to the aviation community at large. I am a licensed pilot, but definately not an experienced one, and part of my reason for writing this blog in the first place was to generate feedback from the people I and others like me serve every day. Contrary to S.S. McDonald's claim in the letter of the week, I am acutely aware of my role as a public servant. I constantly try to inform myself about the flying public which I serve, which is why I chose to write this blog. Since the FAA saw fit to terminate the "fam trip" program (where controllers can ride along in the cockpit and get a pilot's eye view of the world) this is about as close as I get to finding out what the users of the NAS have to say about the service we provide.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | May 24, 2010 11:53 AM    Report this comment

To the controllers: Am I up here so you can be down there or are you down there so I can be up here.Pilots don't need controllers to have or do a job.Its time for real positional understanding, Don

Posted by: DON WELOTH | May 24, 2010 9:16 PM    Report this comment

Did I miss something here?? The controller gave the pilot what he wanted.
The point is, you can't light a match in a movie theatre and then yell "fire". If you declare an emergency, then so be it---but don't expect there not to be any consequenses afterwards.
The controller is also responsible to people on the ground (I.E. rwy construction workers). He can't just clear the runway at the snap of a finger. All the controller wanted was time to ensure the runway was clear and safe. Why couldn't the pilot wait for that? Again, if it was fuel considerations, it was never stated.
btw Don, next time you go into O'hare, see if you can sequence yourself on unicom.

Posted by: jere gardner | May 26, 2010 9:41 AM    Report this comment

Mr Wilson,
You say, some pilots are ignorant to what is going on at their airport of landing. ATIS comes out every hour unless something changes. Of course, they knew about the crosswind well before landing. You don't go by the ATIS reported winds for your aircraft crosswind limits. You have no idea what happened prior to his declared emergencey as maybe he even requested another RW be passed on from NYARTCC. with Maybe even had a problem with a system. Read my prior post about landing at JFK. All of the NYC area has great controllers but sometime they have a hard time listening. Just to prove my point of my respect for JFK, when the kid talking to planes broke in the news ,I called the JFK tower and offered my support!! When you are finishing a TRANSPAC , NATRAC and any flight with adeverse landing WX, you pay very serious attention to your landing airport. Controllers sometime forget they are service providers. Yes, I understand, you must go with the flow but sometimes the flow becomes to rigid when you are trying to communicate your flight concerns. Professionalism goes along way for all. To bad the ATC jump seat got screwed up. It would give you an up close and personal look at the real thing. I would like to have you on a jump seat on TRANSPAC from Asia to JFK with not a bunch of Jet A to play with when you got there , after 13 hours of flight. Yes, we do pay attention.

Captain Jim Carney , retired

Posted by: JAMES CARNEY | June 17, 2010 9:53 AM    Report this comment

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