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After near-disaster, NTSB eyes tech to keep planes on runways

Washington

US accident investigators probing a San Francisco incident last year in which a jetliner was mere metres from landing on top of at least one other plane are poised to recommend new automated safety warnings and better pilot-fatigue protections.

An Air Canada flight mistakenly tried to touch down on a taxi strip where four other jetliners were waiting to take off. Both pilots told investigators that they were tired as they neared the airport at almost midnight. Because they lived in Toronto, it was the equivalent of 3 am on their body clocks.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Tuesday is scheduled to adopt its findings and make recommendations on the July 7, 2017 incident that could have become one of the worst airline disasters in decades if the Air Canada plane had descended just a few metres more.

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Investigators have concluded that the tired pilots erred by failing to identify the runway and hadn't adequately reviewed pre-flight warnings about potentially confusing construction at the airport, according to a person briefed on the proposed findings. The action was described by a person familiar with the agency's work who wasn't authorised to speak publicly.

Instead of aiming for a runway, the captain, who was at the controls, flew on a parallel path towards a taxiway, where the other jets were idling.

"Where is that guy going?" a pilot on a United Continental Holdings Inc jet radioed as the Air Canada plane approached. "He's on the taxiway," the United pilot said three seconds later as the other plane passed just overhead.

The Air Canada pilots eventually aborted the landing and climbed, but it was so late that they were still descending when they passed above the United plane and flew just three to six metres over a Philippine Airlines Inc jet, according to the NTSB's review of flight data and surveillance video.

While the NTSB's findings are subject to change at the meeting, the staff has proposed citing pilot actions as the cause of the incident, with the flight crew's fatigue and other issues as factors, said the person. The NTSB is also preparing to ask Transport Canada, that nation's aviation regulator, to adopt stricter rules for pilots who fly in the US, according to the person.

Air Canada didn't respond to a request for comment.

Canada's rules governing how many hours a day a pilot can fly haven't been changed since 1996, according to a 2014 advisory by Transport Canada. Since that time, many other nations have adopted new regulations as the science of sleep has shown the dangers of fatigue. Canada announced its intent to bring its rules more closely in line with US and European standards in a 2014 advisory.

Transport Canada intends to finalise its updated regulations as soon as this year, it said in an emailed statement. The agency referred questions about the San Francisco episode to the NTSB, which makes safety recommendations but has no regulatory power.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted new pilot work rules in 2011 that limited how long crew on passenger planes could fly during the wee hours and increased the minimum rest period between shifts from eight hours to 10. The rules only apply to US-registered airline crew.

There have been 596 instances of aircraft landing on the wrong runway or at the wrong airport - or almost doing so - in the past two years, according to the FAA. BLOOMBERG