International airports are busy places. For example, London Heathrow saw an average of 1,290 "air transport movements" per day in 2014. It seems that a crash at the airport, such as BA Flight 38, would cause major disruption.

Yet, according to that same wikipedia page, flight operations were resumed within hours and basically back to normal within a couple of days.

Another more recent example is Turkish Airlines Flight 1878 crashing on landing at Istanbul. Again, the airport "was temporarily closed".

How are airports able to keep disruption to a minimum after (what seems to me to be) a fairly major incident, potentially involving a wrecked plane sitting on the runway? How do they move the wreckage and re-open the airport so quickly?

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    $\begingroup$ In the case of the first example, the aircraft came down short of the runway. Other than freaking the hell out of passengers on later flights, I cant see there was much actual disruption to the runway(s). $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 11 '16 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ The wreckage of Flight 38 was on the runway threshold. Would that not be in the way? How quickly can it be moved? I guess "how do they move wrecked planes?" is a separate question... $\endgroup$ – Roger Lipscombe Jan 11 '16 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ to quote Wiki "The plane passed above traffic on the A30 and the airport's Southern Perimeter road and landed on the grass approximately 270 metres (890 ft) short of runway 27L" - that's a long way from the threshold. And even so, a simple displacement of the threshold (Heathrow's runways are quite long!) would serve to keep the runway usable even if something were on the threshold. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 11 '16 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Jamiec That was where it initially touched down. It was still traveling over 100 knots at that time. It came to rest on the runway threshold. A 61-foot-high obstacle sitting on the runway threshold is a pretty big problem. My guess would be that the simply used the other runway until they could clear the wreckage. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 11 '16 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab - yes I know that, but the point remains - either use a different runway or displace the threshold (if able)... there are ways to deal with temporary obstructions that dont require complete shutdown of the airport. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 11 '16 at 16:14

It completely depends on the accident and airport.

For example if I crash land on 10R at San Francisco, and it's a fairly quiet time of day (eg below the capacity of one runway), the airport could just use 10L and continue operations as normal. Similarly if there was no wind they could just switch to 1/19 L/R instead of 10/28 L/R. I'll discuss this toward the end of this answer.

Even if the crash didn't damage the runway, if the accident didn't damage the runway and the aircraft could be safely moved the airport would be back to normal as soon as the aircraft was moved and the runway had been checked. This could be within an hour.

On the other hand if at a single runway airport, with severe damage to the runway and a need to leave the aircraft in situ to be inspected, it could take several weeks.

In the cases you mentioned, BA 38 landed short of the runway. The airport was closed to arrivals for a few hours, however, and hundreds of flights were delayed, cancelled, or diverted. In the meantime, the runway in question (27L) was closed entirely for arrivals until 3 days later when the aircraft was recovered. However the runway re-opened on the day of the accident for departures only. As Heathrow typically operates with one runway for Departures and one for Arrivals, this had minimal impact on operations: ref

In Turkish flight 1878, the aircraft impacted Runway 5, then again on Runway 35L, but as far as I'm aware no significant damage was done. The other runways were inspected and used until the aircraft was moved. Ataturk is a busy airport, but not so busy that it can't cope with the loss of a single runway. Again a few hundred flights were delayed, cancelled, or diverted.

In neither incident was wreckage left on the actual runway, so once inspected they could be used as normal. There was some disruption in both cases - although no more than that caused by bad weather. If the aircraft had remained on the runway in either case, however, and had the accidents been at a single airport runway (eg London Stansted rather than Heathrow), the airport would likely have been closed for several days.

Another interesting case is Asiana Airlines flight 214 - an accident at San Francisco which closed the Airport for a few hours, and the runway for around a day. The other two runways (1/19 L/R which are perpendicular, as San Francisco has 4 runways arranged as 2 pairs) re-opened after around an hour and meant there was minimal impact, along with the parallel runway (10L/28R) which re-opened 24 hours later. The accident runway (10R/27L) re-opened around a week later.

One thing to note is that in most cases, an airport only needs runways in one direction - so for example at San Francisco there is a lot of resilience in the runways. As long as the accident doesn't cause damage too close to the "crossover" of the runways, San Francisco should almost always be able to operate at near full capacity shortly after an accident, even with a runway closed, due to always having a pair of runways available. Airports such as Heathrow with a single pair of runways are less resilient

  • $\begingroup$ BA38 hit the ground short of the runway but continued to slide until it was sitting on the threshold: map on Wikipedia. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jan 11 '16 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah this has been discussed on the other answer, I'll edit mine when I get a moment - the main principle stands, though, that the aircraft was below the glide slope and therefore the runway could be kept in operation as far as I'm aware $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 11 '16 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the first sentence. For more minor accidents (e.g. a plane taxis off of a taxiway,) they might not close the airport at all. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 11 '16 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory I find it a bit dubious that a 61-foot-tall obstacle sitting on the threshold would really be "below the glideslope" to the extent that the runway can still safely be used. I don't remember having ever been that high when crossing the threshold either as a passenger or as a pilot, except in the cases that I was intentionally landing (very) long. Even if you're aiming at the 1,000 foot marker, a 3 degree glideslope would have you crossing the threshold at 52 feet. Also, jet blast on the crash scene from arriving and departing aircraft would probably be undesirable. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 11 '16 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ I'll be correcting this soon: The runway was re-opened for departures only, which makes sense, on the 18th. As Heathrow usually operates with one runway for departures and the other for arrivals, this didn't significantly impede operations: theaviationist.com/2008/01/20/… $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 11 '16 at 16:10

Your last line has something of a false premise - once the initial rescue is over (and presuming that there's no implication that airport operations caused the accident), there'd generally be no reason not to re-open using alternative runways. Flight 38 wasn't moved for several days - it just wasn't blocking all of the runways!

Passengers might not enjoy the site of a stricken jet, but it's not a particular issue that they see it.

In most jurisdictions, the rescue and investigation authorities 'own' the scene immediately after an accident and it's essentially up to them. They'll generally take a proportional view depending on the circumstances - there's little to be gained closing an entire airport because an aircraft suffered a mechanical failure with few injuries. It won't help the investigation, it's not going to destroy forensic evidence, it isn't putting anybody in further danger and will only serve to annoy the public and lose money for the operators.

On the other hand - if controllers at London Heathrow had someone caused an aircraft collision resulting in fatalities then I expect the airport would remain closed for a lengthy period of time as investigators work to forensically analyse the scene.

It's not quite comparable, but after the Shoreham jet crash the road remained completely closed for a week, and only fully reopened after several.

  • $\begingroup$ Flight 38 wasn't blocking any of the runways, it stopped over 200 metres short :) $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 11 '16 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory It landed short, it didn't stop short. It actually hit the threshold of the runway. I'd not continue with my approach if this was in front of me: deicinginnovations.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/BA-38.jpg $\endgroup$ – Dan Jan 11 '16 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ A good point - it appears to have stopped with the nose just over the threshold. I'd assume that meant the runway couldn't be used but I can't find a source to confirm either way. The number of flights cancelled seems low though, considering it was Heathrow - I'd have expected far more disruption with a runway closed for 3 days $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 11 '16 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think an accident suspected to be caused by controllers would close the airport for lengthy period of time. All the relevant evidence in such case would be on the tapes in the tower and in CVRs and FDRs, so once these are collected, the airport could be reopened (with controllers from different shift), except if blocked by wrecks. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jan 11 '16 at 13:50

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