Japan Airlines staff raise safety concerns following several incidents    

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Pilots and ground handling staff employed by Japan Airlines (JAL) have voiced concerns over training shortfalls and difficulties communicating with more senior employees following a string of recent safety incidents at the carrier. 

In terms of the pilot workforce, with many pilots having retired early during the pandemic, the airline has recruited flight crews to fill those open cockpit positions in the time since. However, this has resulted in a flying environment where few pilots know each other and often meet for the first time on the flight deck.  

Such an environment is making it more difficult for pilots to communicate and interact with each other in a country where a seniority-based hierarchy is still very much installed in the national psyche, said unnamed sources employed by the airline. 

Equally, during the pandemic, many ground handling staff aged between 30 and 50 left JAL to secure employment elsewhere as they were unable to see a recovery in the airline industry in the short term, effectively breaking the connection between older workers and younger staff. Where the older staff would once have acted as mentors to new recruits, the dynamic has shifted so that there are fewer more experienced staff to train newcomers leading to an experience gap in the workforce.

Although JAL has declined to comment formally on the allegations of safety issues at the carrier, the Japanese airline touched upon the lack of skilled workforce at its shareholder meeting earlier in June 2024.  

“We failed to build an environment where ground staff could ensure safety amid various pressures and that led to the series of incidents,” said Munekazu Tachibana, the carrier’s senior vice president of corporate safety and security. 

JAL operations have come under additional scrutiny since the accident at Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) in January 2024 when one of its Airbus A350s was destroyed following a collision with a Japanese Coast Guard plane on the runway. Although the incident was not the fault of the JAL crew in any way, the accident has opened the carrier to additional scrutiny over its own safety processes and procedures.  

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Other incidents

In November 2023, a JAL aircraft crossed the runway at Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA) without clearance. In a subsequent safety report issued to the Japanese government, the carrier said the captain had misunderstood the air traffic controller’s instructions and even though the co-pilot doubted they had clearance to line up, he failed to speak up due to the fear of overruling the captain.  

In May 2024, at Fukuoka Airport (FUK) in southwest Japan, a JAL pilot allegedly failed to correctly repeat air traffic controller (ATC) instructions and subsequently moved beyond a runway stop line, entering the airport’s active runway without the control tower’s clearance. 

In another incident also in May 2024, the wingtips of two JAL aircraft came into contact at Haneda airport as one was being pushed back from the terminal to prepare for take-off while the other was moving forward to enter an adjacent parking position.  

Then, on June 22, 2024, a J-Air (a JAL subsidiary) Embraer 170 bound for Osaka-Itami returned to Aomori Airport in the country’s north after a cockpit signal indicated that one of its engines had caught fire. 

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Japan’s transport ministry, speaking in March 2024, said that JAL is facing a challenge securing sufficient captains as many of them are currently aged in their 50s and are set to retire by around 2030. Meanwhile, the majority of co-pilots at the carrier are in their 20s to early 40s. JAL employs around 2,000 pilots. 

On June 24, 2024, the transport ministry also said that it was planning to strengthen runway encroachment measures, including installing a sound feature, in addition to a message, that would go off on air traffic control screens if there’s a danger of two aircraft colliding. Additionally, the ministry is considering increasing the number of air traffic controllers to bolster safety.  

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