Close shave for SIA plane

SINGAPORE - A SINGAPORE Airlines plane that was taking off came uncomfortably close to another aircraft that was landing at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Thursday (Friday, Singapore time).

According to NBC News, the pilot of the SIA airliner did not level off when he reached 4,000ft as required, resulting in the aircraft being less than 2,000ft (610m) away from a Delta Air Lines plane that was preparing to land.

An SIA spokesman confirmed that "there was a loss of separation" involving Flight SQ61, which is a Boeing 777-300ER plane.

The plane, which was carrying 235 passengers and 18 crew members, was on its way to Moscow and Singapore.

The incident occurred about 16km north-east of the airport, reported NBC News.

"An air traffic controller noticed the deviation and issued traffic alerts and instructions to the pilots of both aircraft," the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.

Aviation experts My Paper spoke to yesterday suspected that it could have been a case of miscommunication between the pilots and air traffic controllers.

"Either of the two pilots might have mistaken or misheard the information given by the air traffic controller," said Britain-based aviation consultant Chris Yates.

He added that the pilots have to juggle multiple tasks, including communicating with the controllers and taking instructions from them. Take-offs are "a very busy time" for them, he said.

"The pilot would have to react very quickly to avoid a crash," said Mr Yates.

Associate Professor Terence Fan, an aviation expert at the Singapore Management University, highlighted that even in this age of advanced technology, communications involving pilots and those on the ground are primarily carried out verbally.

This being so, "pilots have to be very sensitive and tuned in to what the controller instructs them (to do)", said Prof Fan.

In fact, pilots are 80 per cent dependent on the instructions from the air traffic controllers, noted Mr Yates, and 20 per cent is down to their own skills in operating the plane.

A safe distance between two aircraft in terms of horizontal distance would be at least 1,000m, said Mr Yates.

Bigger airports or cities with more than one airport have a higher chance of landing in such situations, with more aircraft sharing the air space, said Prof Fan.

However, he added that this incident is a rare one, with barely "a dozen such cases worldwide a year".

"It's not something that is out of the ordinary and the passengers and aircraft would have been safe," said Prof Fan.

"The passengers on board most likely would have not even noticed anything," he added.

The SIA spokesman said that investigations are taking place.

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