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Jet backs into another at SFO - no injuries
Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, January 14, 2008

(01-13) 23:24 PST San Francisco -- A United Airlines Boeing 757 jet that was backing out of a gate at San Francisco International Airport crashed into a SkyWest plane carrying 60 passengers and crew Sunday night in what airport officials called a serious accident.

The crash occurred at 7:30 p.m. at domestic Terminal 3 as the United plane was being taken out of service and moved without passengers from Gate 80 to a hangar for maintenance. The passengers onboard the SkyWest plane, which was headed to Boise, Idaho, were not injured, said Airport Duty Manager Lily Wang.

They were quickly evacuated from the plane, a Canadian Regional Jet 700, by stairway and walked 100 to 150 yards to the terminal.

The impact caused damage to both planes: Both had part of their tails sheared - specifically the vertical stabilizer assembly - and both had damage to their engines.

"The 757's tail basically went on top of the regional jet," Wang said. "It is human error. It is dark out there, it is nighttime. It could be (United) not seeing that other airplane because it is very low."

The crash will be investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and is certain to raise new questions about safety at the airport. In a report released in October by the FAA, SFO was declared one of the nation's riskiest airports in terms of near-collisions on runways or incidents in which pilots get confused while taxiing around the airfields.

In Sunday's incident, the United airliner - a Boeing 757-200 that had been flown to San Francisco from New York - had maintenance workers aboard when it was being pushed by a heavy truck called a "tug" - headed to the hangar for night maintenance.

The SkyWest plane, United Express Flight 6398, had already been pushed out of Gate 79 and was waiting 100 to 150 yards from the gate for instructions from the flight tower.

There were no "wing walkers" on the ground directing the tug as it moved the United plane, said Airport Duty Manager John Ginty. There were two individuals on the tug truck, he said.

Ginty said there is no airport policy requiring wing walkers for maintenance moves and that each airline sets it own policy on that matter.

United Airlines spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said it is the airline's normal procedure not to use wing walkers when taking a plane to the maintenance area.

"Because the plane was being pushed to the maintenance, wing walkers were not used," she said.

There were two maintenance workers in the cockpit steering the plane as it was being pushed by the tug truck, Urbanski said.

"Whenever something like this happens, of course we are concerned and we will have to investigate further," she said.

The 54 passengers who were evacuated from the SkyWest plane were sent to local hotels and will be put on the first available flight to Boise in the morning, according to Ginty.

One of the airport's main taxiways - the eastbound - was shut down from the time of the accident until 8:48 p.m., Ginty said. But the closure did not cause delays because traffic was light and planes were diverted to the other taxiway, he said.

"Both aircraft have been removed, and the FAA will conduct an investigation. It is a serious incident," said Mike McCarron, a spokesman for SFO.

According to the FAA report, the airport had four runway incursions in the previous year, which could include any incident that violates procedures and could lead to a collision between planes. One of those incidents was a near-collision in May at between a jetliner and a turboprop plane that was caused by an air traffic controller's mistake.

In that incident, the pilot of a Republic Airlines jetliner took off earlier than planned when he noticed a smaller SkyWest turboprop converging on his path from an intersecting runway. The incursion occurred because an air traffic controller forgot he or she had cleared the SkyWest plane for landing.

Nationwide, there were 330 reports of near-collisions and other dangerous incidents between October 2006 and September 2007. The totals at San Francisco and San Jose airports each amounted to between 1 and 2 incursions for every 100,000 flights in 2007.

Since 1997, SkyWest has been partners with United Airlines and is the "primary United Express carrier along the West Coast, providing more than 1,200 daily departures and serving United hubs at Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Chicago O'Hare and Denver," according to the SkyWest Web site.


E-mail Tanya Schevitz at tschevitz@sfchronicle.com

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2008/01/14/MN6LUES3S.DTL
 
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