Heathrow jets 'seconds' from runway collision

Two crowded airliners came within 100 feet of colliding at Heathrow in one of the most dangerous near misses in Britain for 40 years.

A British Airways 747 and a British Midland Airbus 321 are understood to have been within seconds of disaster. One of the planes had 89 passengers on board. Air-traffic control had cleared the BA jet arriving from Tokyo to land on the same runway from which the British Midland Airbus 321, was about to take off for Brussels.

The aircraft were under the direction of a trainee controller who was being instructed by a senior colleague. The control tower frantically ordered the 747 to abort the landing when air traffic controllers realised that the two aircraft were about to collide head-on. The incident took place in foggy conditions at 3.06pm on 28 April.

Kieran Daly of Air Transport Intelligence said yesterday that it was "highly unusual" for Heathrow to allow take-offs and landings on the same runway, controllers only allowing the practice in certain weather and to alleviate severe congestion. Other air traffic experts said while such "mixed mode" operations were used frequently at big airports abroad, that did not mean they were without risk at Heathrow. "Common sense will tell you that any deviation from routine practice is inherently more risky," one said.

A British Midland spokeswoman confirmed her company's plane was cleared for take-off and the BA flight was instructed to land. "Both were under the control of Heathrow air-traffic controllers," she said.

A BA spokeswoman said the airline was co-operating with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, normally called in to examine the cause of a crash. The Civil Aviation Authority usually looks into near misses.

Iain Findlay, a national official at the Institution of Professionals Managers and Specialists, the air-traffic controllers' union, said there were 1,340 take-offs and landings a day at Heathrow which put his members under huge pressure.

He said trainee controllers, who were normally expected to be educated at least to A-level standard, needed to have highly developed spatial awareness. He said that trainees usually completed a minimum of two years at Heathrow before they were qualified, but there was no set period. Trainees became controllers as soon as inspectors were satisfied they were able to do the job. Mr Findlay said the part sell-off of the state-owned National Air Traffic Services meant that safety concerns could be overriden by the profit motive.

"There is no doubt in my mind that if the Government succeeds in its ill-advised strategy of privatising air-traffic control, the new company will insist on more aircraft movements at Heathrow and elsewhere," he said.

The union's annual conference in Torquay yesterday unanimously passed a motion declaring its determination to pursue its anti-privatisation campaign.

An emergency was declared at Liverpool airport last night when a plane reported undercarriage problems as it came in to land.

The BA Regional Turboprop aircraft, with 44 passengers on board, circled the airport to burn off fuel before making a successful emergency landing. The problem with the Belfast-bound aircraft's landing gear was noticed shortly after it took off at 6.08pm from Manchester Airport.