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Transcripts of communications between the control tower at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and two aircraft involved in a deadly crash on Tuesday night suggest that a Japan Coast Guard plane had not been cleared for take-off before it collided with a passenger jet on the runway.
The transcript, which was released by the Japanese government late on Wednesday, covers just over four minutes of exchanges ahead of the crash, which left five people dead and forced nearly 400 to make an emergency evacuation from a burning Japan Airlines plane.
The JCG aircraft — a De Havilland Dash-8 coastguard turboprop that was due to fly emergency earthquake relief supplies to western Japan — entered the runway just as a JAL Airbus A350 from Sapporo was landing. The planes collided, causing an accident in which five of the six-member coastguard crew were killed.
According to the transcript, Haneda air traffic controllers gave JAL Flight 516 clearance to land on runway 34R. Five seconds later, the plane’s crew responded by confirming the permission.
Ten seconds after that, the tower instructed the coastguard plane to taxi to a holding point on the edge of the runway. The coastguard pilot responded by repeating the message.
A Japan Civil Aviation Bureau official told media that the transcripts provided “no indication” that the coastguard plane had been given permission to take off. JCG officials had previously told reporters that its plane had received permission to enter the runway. The service has subsequently agreed that the published transcripts do not show such clearance being given.
Evidence from the transcript is part of parallel Japanese investigations being conducted into the crash, which took place at the country’s busiest airport. One probe being conducted by the Japan Transport Safety Board is focused on the precise circumstances and aftermath of the collision, while a second by the police is examining the possibility of human error and potential culpability of pilots or air traffic controllers.
Evidence from the recovered flight recorders has not been released.
JAL said in a statement on Wednesday that its pilots had acknowledged and repeated the landing permission from air traffic control before proceeding with the approach.
Following the collision, the JAL plane caught fire as it skidded along the runway. The successful evacuation of all 379 people aboard through emergency slides — as well as the crew’s efficiency and passengers’ composure despite smoke and gas filling the cabin — has been widely praised.
JAL estimated on Wednesday that the crash would result in an operating loss of about ¥15bn ($105mn), which would be covered by insurance. It added that it was assessing the impact of the loss on its earnings forecast for the financial year ending in March.
The crash came just weeks after the US-based Flight Safety Foundation issued a global warning over the rising risk of planes entering runways in error. These so-called runway incursions ranked among the most persistent threats to aviation safety, the group said.
In a paper released last month that offered a series of recommendations for improving airport safety around the world, the FSF noted that “variability in human performance and breakdowns in communication and co-ordination” played a role in runway incursions.
It also warned that the absence of collision-avoidance barriers and technologies would increase risks as airports became more congested with traffic.