Clueless in Barcelona?

Last week we discussed the effects of culture and automation confusion in the cockpit. This week an Airbus 340 crossed a runway in Barcelona, Spain while a B-767 was on short final. This kicked off a new media round on runway incursions and serves as a great reminder that while it doesn’t happen often, it’s one of those low probability, high consequence incidents that can go really bad, really quickly.

As usual, we speculate on cause, but the effect is clear. According to unofficial reports, the Boeing balked the landing at about 200 feet agl and was about 3000 feet down the runway. Based on the camera angle and the effect of foreshortening, it appeared perhaps a bit closer to the ‘Bus than it was in actuality. That said, this is a graphic depiction of what was almost a major accident and serves as a good example of how NOT to do things.

  • At this writing, we don’t know what role ATC played—did they direct the Airbus to cross?
  • Did the controller forget that the Boeing had been cleared to land?
  • What was going on in the Airbus cockpit?
  • We know that the Boeing crew reacted exactly as they should have.

The FAA has grouped incursions based on how close the collision nearly was. It’s worth perusing the definitions. My estimation is that this was either a category A (a serious incident in which a collision was narrowly avoided) or B (an incident in which separation decreases, and there is a significant potential for collision which may result in a time critical corrective/evasive response to avoid a collision).

On the ground there are several inviolate rules—especially for those of us that fly single pilot:

  • No programming while taxiing—either load the beast before leaving the ramp or after reaching the run-up block. No in-between unless one is devoted 100 percent to driving while the other is loading—split personalities are not allowed! I really like ground power switches which allow getting a clearance and loading it into the FMS without powering up the entire stack or starting the engine.
  • Always know where you are on the airport—duh. Airport charts are now universally accessible either in instrument approach chart booklets or electronically. Lost? Ask for progressive, especially after dark or in IMC.
  • Sterile cockpit while on the ground, especially with passengers until there are no more runways to cross. Operations take priority over friendly discussion.
  • Coming to the familiar runway entrance red and white sign? Default is to stop unless you’ve been cleared. Are you SURE? Verify if in any doubt. But—wait for it—if cleared, is the runway clear? ATC doesn’t make mistakes often, but it only takes once so Mom was right—always look both ways before crossing.

The cockpit voice recorder and ATC tapes will make clear what is or is not so obvious now. Distractions can be deadly—but you knew that.

GA pilots continue to account for almost 80% of runway incursions, so we’ve got some work to do…especially as single-pilot operators where the proliferation of cockpit automation fights for our attention. That’s why ASI offers a free online course about runway safety to anyone with Internet access.


  1. My research a few years ago found this type of incident always falls into category C. Even if the 767 had landed, this incident would not get upgraded due to the distance involved. Yes it appears these aircraft missed by a matter of luck, skill, and/or mere seconds, but those don’t seem to factor in to the official incursion severity.

  2. No matter the clearance, always look both ways before taking or crossing a runway, assuming you know that you are coming to a runway.

    Incidentally, as to knowing where you are on an airport, your SA and any calls to ATC should be precisely explicit. As opposed to telling ATC that you are “clear of runway 28” after turning off following landing, you should say “clear of runway 28 at Hotel and Golf taxiway” along with where you need to taxi. That puts the pilot and ATC on the same page, but more importantly forces the pilot to know precisely where he/she is located so as to absolutely minimize incursion possibilities due to loss of SA.

  3. The runways at Barcelona are 8K+ and 9K+ feet. Regardless of which one they were on, the mere fact there was a possibility for collision should not have been there. The 767 was going to touch down over 3,000 feet down the runway, and that runway crossing was approximately half way down the runway, means the only way to avoid a collision was to do what the Russian crew did, go around.
    Visual perspective can be argued all day long, but does not lessen the real danger that this event was.

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