This pilot and these pax did not have a good day at all last month. Photo by NHK.

I know this is a little bit late but I wanted to let coverage of the incident disseminate, and fact-finding commence…sadly, there wasn’t really much that was covered about this incident.

On July 30, 2018, an Air Canada Boeing 787 Dreamliner operating as AC-5 landed on the B-runway (16 L) at Narita Airport (NRT) without incident. The tower controller instructed the crew to exit via taxiway B7 (at the end of 16L before the threshold of 34R), and then switch to ground controller upon entering the K taxiway. There is a taxiway under construction just before the B7 taxiway as part of NRT’s efforts to modernize and improve the safety of the B runway. The Air Canada crew thought that construction was B7, and ended up taxiing onto the construction zone, stopping when they noticed dirt, grass, and uneven pavement was in front of them.

Image from the Aviation Herald. Note the construction site before the B7 twy.

The runway had to be closed, resulting in a huge traffic jam for the main runway (16R/34L). Holding patterns were as long as 45 minutes and the STAR sequencing often had to be amended for aircraft to land in due time at NRT. Some flights were diverted to HND or other airports, and 6 flights were cancelled. The 787 was eventually pushed back onto the B runway 6 hours later, utilizing metal sheets to push the plane back due to the rough surface, and ops on 16L/34R resumed around 10pm.

There were 3 things that really had me scratching my head during this ordeal.

1) Why were there no NOTAMs (notice to airmen) about the construction? As the Aviation Herald reported, there were no active notices or official statements issued to airlines about the construction of the new taxiway. There were no markings or indications that the area was closed. Since the taxiways are similar in construction and layout, I’m not surprised one bit that someone got confused about the taxiway under construction.

2) Why NRT didn’t send out a stair truck or bus to deplane the passengers when they were shut onboard the airplane for over 5 hours? Usually when an airplane get stuck somewhere, busses and stair trucks are dispatched to the plane to get the pax back into the terminal. The passengers on this flight were stuck on board for over 5 hours and had to wait until the plane got towed to Terminal 1. There was no reason for that. The tower and the pilots had a number of back and forth conversations with zero avail about getting a bus to the plane, when it should’ve been sent immediately. I have no idea why NRT’s staff did that.

3) Speaking of the tower, their communication skills were quite horrid…to say the least. This whole ordeal, there was very limited contact between the tower and Air Canada, even on the discrete frequency that NRT offers during emergencies. The tower controller kept telling the pilots to ‘stand by’ and there were little to no solid updates given to the crew, even when they asked for airstairs or busses. NRT dropped the ball big time in this incident.

What should happen now?

NRT needs to update their charts. NOTAM the construction, use proper markings to indicate a closed taxiway, and caution landing pilots on 16L that the construction site is not a taxiway. NRT needs to DESPERATELY improve their English conversation skills within the tower…actually, this goes for ALL of Japan’s control towers. I had a conversation with a JASDF officer who works in the control tower at one of the air bases in Japan. She mentioned to me that most tower controllers in Japan do not pass the most basic requirements for English conversation and often read from a script or a performance sheet when giving instructions to aircraft. Only at HND and NRT are the requirements slightly more strict, but even at HND there have been incidents, as seen here. The controllers at HND were totally incompetent, in my opinion.

The Air Canada crew also are at fault here too. They should have noticed the runway edge line crossed over the construction, there is no yellow taxi line from the runway center line toward the construction, and the sign denoting B7 was also much farther ahead. More CRM and crew awareness for this Air Canada crew, I say.

Overall this is a relative non-incident but had really annoying consequences for the passengers onboard. I hope they got proper compensation for being stuck onboard for 5+ hours, and I hope when the runway construction for the C runway at NRT commences, NRT staff aren’t incompetent about leaving the construction site open for excursion by confused aircrew.

-Zach

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