Airport collisions: How common are they and what are the consequences?

Emergency vehicles respond to the incident on 28 September, 2022.  (PA)
Emergency vehicles respond to the incident on 28 September, 2022. (PA)

Passengers who were aboard two Boeing jets at London Heathrow spent the night in hotels after their planes were involved in a collision on the ground.

No one was hurt in the incident.

Collisions on the ground are far from rare and, as well as being unsettling for passengers, usually result in time-consuming inspections and repairs for airlines.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What happened in the Heathrow prang?

Reports say a Boeing 777 operated by Korean Air, due to depart for Seoul at 7.35pm, struck an Icelandair 757 that had landed at 7.43pm and was waiting for clearance to approach the gate at Terminal 2.

The wing of the 777 appears to have clipped the tail of the 757. Pictures on social media show a notch taken out of the tail.

What is the usual procedure after a collision like this?

Aircraft involved in a “clip” like this will not fly until they have been inspected and, if necessary, repaired.

Passengers are offloaded, return through passport control and collect their baggage.

Under European air passengers’ rights rules, they are entitled to be flown to their final destination as soon as possible. While they are waiting, they must be provided with hotel accommodation and meals at the expense of the airline.

Because both carriers in this case are based outside the UK and do not have established engineering facilities at Heathrow, this could be a slow process.

Will passengers be able to claim compensation?

Those aboard the Icelandair plane will not be able to claim the £350 stipulated by air passengers’ rights rules because the airline can blame “extraordinary circumstances”. It remains to be see if the Korean Air passengers will be able to claim the £520 per-person compensation (for a longer flight) if it emerges that the airline was at fault.

How often do such accidents happen?

Given the high costs and disruption involved, alarmingly often; though prangs between two planes are less frequent than collisions involving ground vehicles and aircraft.

In December 2021, for example, a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 737 Max at Heathrow airport was struck by a catering truck.

Usually, damage is caused by moving vehicles striking stationary aircraft. But in August 2022, an Air Senegal Airbus A319 hit a lorry during pushback from a stand at Barcelona airport (not quite, as one tabloid headline insisted, “Giant passenger plane crashes into lorry during take-off”).

Bizarre accidents can also happen. At Gatwick in 1988, for example, a Dan-Air plane was hit by a flying baggage trolley that had been caught by a strong gust of wind and hit the aircraft wing.

But two aircraft have collided previously at Heathrow and many other airports. In 2007, for example, a departing Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus A340  sliced through the wing of a Singapore-bound British Airways 747 at Heathrow Terminal 4.

The following year at Manchester Airport, a Futura Boeing 737 clipped a Lufthansa Airbus A320. While the collision was sorted out, at least 10 flights were diverted due to the incident.

What are the rules?

Ground controllers at busy, complex airports will issue instructions to pilots, but there is no guarantee they will be followed precisely. The Civil Aviation Authority publishes a Skyway Code aimed at private pilots, which deals with rights of way on the ground. It stipulates that vehicles and vehicles towing aircraft must give way to aircraft. The basic rules are:

  • Vehicles must give way to vehicles that are towing aircraft.

  • If approaching another aircraft head on, such that there is a risk of collision, both aircraft shall stop and turn right to avoid each other.

  • The code also points out: “Decision making is generally easier on the ground away from the additional pressure of flying the aircraft.”

Have there been more serious ground collisions?

Sadly, yes – generally involving aircraft on their take-off roll. In 2000 a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747 struck construction equipment on a closed runway at Taipei airport. Eighty-three of the 179 passengers and crew on board were killed. The pilots were attempting to take off from the wrong runway.

The deadliest crash in airline history, between two Boeing 747s at Tenerife North airport in 1977, cost 583 lives. A KLM Jumbo jet was attempting to take off even though a Pan Am plane was still on the runway.