Southwest Boeing 737 takes off from occupied and closed Portland runway  

Markus Mainka / Shutterstock

An investigation is underway after a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 took off from an inactive runway at Portland International Jetport (PWM) on June 25, 2024. According to reports, not only was the runway closed at the time of the incident, but the air traffic control tower at the airport was unmanned and the runway in question had a vehicle on it having just conducted a runway inspection. 

The flight in question, operated by 737-700 registered N7861J, was operating flight number WN4805 from Portland to Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI). The aircraft took off from runway 29 at Portland at 05:43 in the morning when both the runway and tower were still officially closed. The official opening times of both were published as 05:45, two minutes after the flight had departed. 

For the last several months, runway 29/11 has been closed overnight for a taxiway construction project, and it reopens each morning at 05:45, according to the Portland International Jetport Authority.  

According to a review of the radio communications on the website of the day and time in question, the airport operations vehicle can be heard on the tower frequency opening the runway about two minutes after Southwest’s departure. The occupants then asked the tower controller whether they could get hold of the Southwest Airplane that had just taken off over them while they were doing a runway inspection. The tower controller responds stating that they never talked to WN4805 as the tower frequency was not live at that point.  

A controller said on the recordings that the tower and runway were both closed overnight. 

“There’s an airport vehicle,” one voice warned over the radio. 

“The Southwest pulling on to 29, just so you know there is a vehicle on the runway, and it is still closed,” adds another voice. 

But the Southwest pilots apparently never heard the warnings being transmitted to them. They were recorded communicating on a different radio frequency with regional air traffic controllers near Boston. The Boston controller later told Southwest they departed three minutes before the runway reopened. 

Boston controller: “That runway was closed.” 

Southwest pilot: “I thought it opened at 45 {minutes past the hour]. There were no markings or anywhere.” 

Controller: “It did open at 45, but you departed at 42.” 

Pilot: “That’s not what we’re showing, but ok.” 

The FAA has mandated that the Boeing 737NG engine nacelle would be redesigned and retroffited by July 2028
lorenzatx / Shutterstock

The incident is made even more curious by the fact that Portland’s other runway 18/36 was both open and available to departing traffic at the time the Southwest flight departed.  

On June 29, 2024, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a statement regarding the incident.   

“Southwest Airlines Flight 4805 departed from a temporarily closed runway at the Portland International Jetport on Tuesday, June 25. 2024. An airport vehicle exited the runway before the plane began its take-off roll. The FAA and NTSB are investigating the event, which occurred around 05:45 local time.” 

The incident is now under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the FAA, and Southwest has said it is engaged with both regulators. The aircraft landed safely in Baltimore without further incident. 

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