JAL Airliner Burns on the Runway – Survivors Demonstrate Aviation Safety Success

January 2, 2024 / 5 Comments


The Japan Airlines Airbus A350 is still smoldering at Haneda Airport as I write this, so important details are unknown. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s firey collision on the runway between the packed jetliner landing in Tokyo and a much smaller Coast Guard Bombardier Dash 8 waiting to depart, appears to be a demonstration of aviation’s robust efforts to ensure survivability in those rare cases when things go wrong.

After colliding with the smaller turboprop, erupting into flames, and hurtling down the runway all 369 passengers and 12 crew members on the JAL flight from Sapporo were able to evacuate successfully. Of the 7 people aboard the Coast Guard plane, five were killed and two are unaccounted for. The government plane was delivering relief supplies to victims of the New Year’s Day earthquake.


To see the frightening video of the jumbo jet afire, is to witness what robust safety improvements can achieve.

Following the collision, pilots and flight attendants had just moments to assess the situation, decide what to do and act. One passenger, 17-year-old Anton Diebe, told the Swedish newspaper, Aftonbladet, that “the entire cabin was filled with smoke within a few minutes. We threw ourselves down on the floor. Then the emergency doors were opened and we threw ourselves at them.”

Diebe may be wrong about the timing. Various videos of the event show that the initiation of the blast to the plane being fully engulfed was less than 10 seconds.

“The smoke in the cabin stung like hell. It was a hell. We have no idea where we are going so we just run out into the field. It was chaos,” Diebe said. And yet, even with the fire, the smoke, the heat, the darkness, the confusion, all aboard the jetliner were able to escape to safety.

This is no accident. It is the result of the aviation industry learning from its mistakes. We know about the training and retraining pilots receive and about regular flights in simulators where they are subjected to potentially catastrophic failures that enable them to keep their crisis management skills sharp.

Less attention is paid to the flight attendants. Sure they are often the “voice of no” – NO, you can’t switch seats, recline your seat back or go to the bathroom. They are often tuned out or ignored. They are also the ones who will spring into action under circumstances like Tuesday’s collision, as I wrote earlier. A large part of their training and the most important part of their job is this life-saving work.

Many factors surely contributed to the absence of fatalities on JAL Flight 516, likely including the design of the plane, flame, smoke and fire retarding cabin materials, and emergency evacuation requirements.  When I wrote several stories about survivability following the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013, I asked Boeing’s then director of payloads engineering, Dan Freeman, what components inside the cabin had to be certified for safety. he told me “everything”.

Just as important though is the rigorous study of human performance and the training that turns ordinary humans into heroes when they need to be because those are equally important strands of the aviation safety net.

I reserve the right to revise my opinion on this accident as the specifics become known. But right now I see what happened at Haneda Airport as the result of decades of turning disasters into learning opportunities. In a world where oh yeah! and uh-oh! are separated by a very thin line labeled luck, commercial aviation’s safety efforts are notably and unquestionably effective.

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Categories: Flying Lessons

5 responses to “JAL Airliner Burns on the Runway – Survivors Demonstrate Aviation Safety Success”

  1. John McDonald says:

    Agreed. The acts of the crew to evacuate the plane successfully were heroic.

    But retaining opinion on the other actions of the crew is smart. What if they were landing on the wrong runway? Or weren’t cleared to land at all? What if the Coast Guard plane was in the right place and the JAL plane in the wrong place? Only a thorough investigation will determine these facts.

  2. Rob Mark says:

    Both of the comments here superbly capture what little we know about an awful situation in which seven people (most likely) lost those lives. As one of the guys who used to sit up front pointing the airplane in the right direction, I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying for decades. Thank God good the flight attendants in the cabin. They turn out to be the real heroes no matter what the actual cause turned out to be.

  3. Christine Garner says:

    Agree with the last comment in that the crew was truly heroic. I watched the video of the pax coming down the slide and what I was happy NOT to see, were their carry on bags with them. Anyone who tries to grab their bags in an emergency evacuation, should be criminally charged, and that’s if they even make it out!

  4. Sara Moran says:

    Great writing and kudos to the flight attendants for a quick and safe evacuation!

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