Last Sunday afternoon, passengers on Cayman Airways flight 505 from Chicago had their tray tables up and their seats in the upright position as the 737-300 Boeing jetliner made its final approach for landing at Owen Roberts International Airport. Visitors were undoubtedly excited about their upcoming stay in our sunny isles, and residents were looking forward to returning home; none of them likely had an inkling about the “occurrence” that was about to unfold.
The word “occurrence” is not ours. It’s how the Cayman Islands Airports Authority described the event on Wednesday, three days after the “occurrence.”
Since the CIAA statement is so brief (only 79 words) and totally bereft of fact and substance, we’ll reprint it here in its entirety:
“CIAA has completed its investigation into an occurrence at Owen Roberts International Airport on Sunday, 22 March, involving two airlines. One of the airlines flight departure was briefly delayed and the other had to go around before being cleared for landing. As part of the formal investigation, a report was submitted by CIAA to the Civil Aviation Authority as is the norm for any such occurrence. This is not a frequent occurrence and at no time was safety compromised.”
Here’s what actually happened, as described by eyewitnesses: With a United Airlines flight on the runway preparing for takeoff, the arriving Cayman Airways flight approached, preparing to land on the same runway. It had already passed the Cayman Islands Hospital and was flying at low altitude.
The pilot of the Cayman Airways jet, by that time close enough to the runway to see the United Airlines plane in his landing space, aborted the landing, “gunned” his engines to quickly gain altitude and circled around toward Bodden Town before beginning a new approach. Meanwhile, the United pilot was instructed to abort his takeoff and exit the runway.
The Cayman Airways flight then completed its circle around and landed safely, which was followed by a safe takeoff by the United flight.
Cayman’s Airports Authority might maintain that safety wasn’t compromised, but it certainly can’t claim that things didn’t go awry.
The incident suggests there was an element of human error in one of three possible ways:
1) The air traffic controller erred with respect to his instructions to the Cayman Airways pilot.
2) The air traffic controller erred with respect to his instructions to the United Airlines pilot.
3) Or, one of the two pilots erred by not following proper instructions from the air traffic controller.
We don’t know which of those scenarios is correct, partially because the Airports Authority’s statement gives no clue, and Cayman Airways has elected not to comment on the record.
Having one jet filled with passengers on a runway when another jet, also filled with passengers, is on its final approach to the same runway is, we believe, not a trivial matter.
Behind the scenes, we assume (and hope) the Airports Authority is taking this “occurrence” far more seriously than its blasé statement might suggest.