Finnair Taxiway Incident Linked To Pandemic-Related Airport Staff Cuts

Finnair A350

Finnair Airbus A350

Credit: Finnair

Inadequate risk assessments and contingency plans following airport staff cuts contributed to a Finnair Airbus A350 skidding partially off a taxiway at Helsinki-Van­taa Airport earlier this year—an incident that spotlights broader risks from rapidly changing airfield operations, Finnish investigators determined.

The probe into the Feb. 21 incident found risks linked to airport operator Finavia’s decision to reduce airfield maintenance staff in response to reduced activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Safety Investigation Authority of Finland (SIAF) final report said.

“A factor in the incident was the cutting of airport winter maintenance staff by about 50% in late 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decline in traffic, which affected ice control and led to noncompliances,” the report said. Finavia “carried out a major organizational change to counter the impact of the pandemic,” the report continued. “The management and assessment of this change had rested almost entirely with the operator. The operator had not initiated adequate actions in order to manage the risks it had identified, and its reactions to observed noncompliances had been inadequate.”

The A350, operating as a cargo flight, was en route to Tokyo when it slid partially off a slippery taxiway and struck a sign with an engine. The flight was canceled, but the incident was not initially considered serious. Key data, including the aircraft’s flight recorders, “were not secured appropriately after the event,” SIAF said.

Investigators found the incident spotlighted both new and well-known safety risks. The pandemic-related cuts and lack of adequate risk-mitigation underscore challenges that airlines, airport operators and regulators face amid fluctuating activity linked to the downturn.

Under normal circumstances, airports either keep their entire airfield active or clearly mark closed areas with physical barriers or markings and special messages available to operators.

At Vantaa, the airport’s maintenance staff sought to limit operations on certain parts of the movement area so that it could focus its resources “where sufficient maintenance could have been guaranteed,” the report said. But “there were no clear guidelines for the closure of portions of the movement area under extreme weather conditions or in other contingencies,” which places too much burden on aircraft operators, the report added.

“An airport operator must ensure the safety of aircraft operations in the movement area under all circumstances or close portions of the movement area if necessary if safety cannot be assured,” said Janne Kotiranta, in charge of the investigation. “The threshold on movement-area closure is currently too high due to flaws in the decision-making process. The safety of operations under difficult weather conditions must not be delegated exclusively to aircraft crews.”

“Aviation stakeholders have had difficulties in recognizing the fact that loss of aircraft control in the movement area is a serious incident,” the report said. This has led to failures to initiate prescribed procedures, to application of nonstandard practices and to failures to ensure adequate communication. Published procedures should help operators to recognize the real nature of incidents and provide guidance for situations where the classification of an incident is changed.”

SIAF recommended that Finavia establish “unambiguous” processes for closing parts of the airfield and that Finland’s Transport and Communications Agency (TCA) regulator improve oversight methods during rapid periods of change. It also urged TCA to ensure that preserving flight records is part of every airline’s operating procedures.

Meanwhile, Helsinki is one of six Finavia airports now benefiting from Navblue’s RunwaySense surface condition reporting platform. The system captures data Braking Action Computation Function (BACF) software on equipped aircraft, currently some Airbus A320s and A330s, and makes it available in real-time. The data measures braking action during the deceleration role and reports it based on the U.S. FAA’s Takeoff and Landing Performance Assessment Runway Condition Assessment Matrix. During winter weather, airport operators can use the data to determine whether runways need attention.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.