Why Would Qatar Airways CEO Calmly Defend an Obvious Crew Error?

(L) Gash on a Qatar Airways 777-300ER caused by impacting runway end approach lighting. (R) Damaged runway approach lighting at Miami International Airport.


Calm in the face of crisis is the pinnacle of aviation – remember Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, former fighter pilot calmly advising the controllers, “We can’t do it …We’re going to be in the Hudson”?  He exuded calm even with a dire aircraft emergency and saved the day with his aviation prowess.

But surely there is a limit to appropriate calm in aviation. One airline CEO recently tested that limit in his comments on a recent incident by one of his crews.

On September 15th, a mighty Boeing 777-300ER operated by Qatar Airways with 279 people onboard, incorrectly assumed that they could depart from an intersection using only 2/3rds of the available runway without rerunning the numbers to ensure they had a sufficient safety margin. The departing jet impacted the runway approach lights but was still able to get airborne, narrowly avoiding a catastrophe.

Despite having detailed maps on their EFB (iPad), they entered the runway over 4,000 down from the departure end.

“Such kind of incidents (sic) happen quite often, either it is a tail strike on the runway or it is contact with the landing lights; It is nothing out of context,” said Qatar Airways’ CEO, Akbar Al Baker, at a recent news conference in New York (according to Flight Global).

Al Baker preserved the tranquillity, observing, “… he had enough runway for getting airborne and it was only an unfortunate incident. At no time was the aircraft or the passengers put in any harms (sic) way.” A nearly foot and a half gash in a fuselage is enough to cause most people worry and definitely enough to put passengers in harm’s way. If not for the strength of a trusty Boeing, the incident could’ve been much worse.

Akbar Al Baker – CEO of Qatar Airways (photo: Wikipedia)

Al Baker would then suggest that controllers were at least partly to blame for the September 15, 2015 “incident” involving the Qatar Airlines Boeing 777-300. In the process, he made what could have been an air disaster into a Public Relations faux pas by stating, “It was an instruction given to our pilot by the air traffic control, which he (the pilot) should have refused to accept.”  For a pilot to blame a controller for the error is callous at best.  In this case, most professional aviators would scoff at the attempt to assign blame to anyone else besides the incident aircrew.

In fact the report issued on December 7th by the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) on the “occurrence”, attributed it to miscommunication among the flight crew and mistakes by the captain.

The real issue here (besides Mr Al Baker’s potential need for more public relations training) is that after ‘rotate’, the flight continued out over the Atlantic, not to dump fuel for a immediate landing, but to continue the 13+ hour flight to Doha (DOH), calmly, as if nothing happened – which actually seems to be what Mr. Al Baker wants everyone to believe.

The FAA labeled the damage “substantial”: a 46 cm tear in the fuselage that breached the pressure vessel, numerous dents and scratches with 18 square meters of damaged skin, 90 external individual areas of damage requiring assessment and rectification, damage to a guard on the left landing gear and of course three smashed approach lights on 27 at Miami International Airport.

Qatar Airways 777-300ER (Photo by Wikipedia)

From the perspective of the four members of the crew in the cockpit at the time, when questioned they seem to agree that, all that damage notwithstanding, they heard nothing at takeoff and noticed nothing unusual in flight despite the aircraft’s systems spending the next 13 1/2 hours dutifully making sure all 279 people on board could breath.

But then four experienced pilots had just calmly presided over a mid-field departure without ensuring they had the adequate runway to do so, leaving 4500 feet of perfectly good runway behind, forgetting the timeless aviation adage: “The three most useless things to pilots are fuel not taken on by them, altitude above them and runway behind them.”

Maintaining composure in the cockpit is vital.  But was the culture at Qatar Airways a tad too “calm” in this case, perhaps?


You can read the original incident report here: Qatari Preliminary Incident Report