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On occasion, an aircraft is cleared for takeoff on one runway, but actually departs from another runway. This has resulted in embarrassment as well as catastrophe. When this occurs, are both the pilot and the air traffic controller at fault? Or is it only the pilot who is at fault?

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    $\begingroup$ Apportioning blame is useless, you can't fire a dead person. The purpose of an investigation is to find out how the process can be improved for safety. $\endgroup$ – GdD Jul 30 '17 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD. I agree generally with what you say. However, the "cause" of an unfortunate incident or accident necessarily requires and examination of each person's responsibilities. An investigation will/should ultimately determine whether or not each person in the chain of events that lead up to the incident adequately fulfilled their assigned "responsibility." Or, on occasion, the investigation will find that an element of an existing procedure that was correctly followed needs to be changed. Your comment is good however. $\endgroup$ – 757toga Jul 30 '17 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ Please try to clarify what you mean by "who bears responsibility". The pilot who pushes the throttles forward is obviously immediately responsible for taking off on the wrong runway, but beyond that it will really depend on the individual incident to determine the chain of events that led to that action. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jul 30 '17 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ @J. Hougaard -see my comment below your answer. $\endgroup$ – 757toga Jul 30 '17 at 14:33
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Of course, as with most airplane incidents "it depends". One of the more notable cases of this is Singapore Airlines Flight 006 which due to very low visibility ended up lining up on and subsequently attempting a departure from 05R after being cleared for 05L. In this case it was deemed the crews fault as the tower could not see the aircraft and had no ground monitoring systems.

The most profound example of this is the Tenerife Airport Disaster where confusion in the cockpit on the part of the pilots, the controllers non standard use of "ok" and a buzzing airport environment lead to the deadliest air disaster ever. In this case both the crew's and tower controllers made mistakes and were noted in the reports.

The FAA publishes a nice guide on runway safety if you are interested.

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    $\begingroup$ The OP specifically said that the "pilot is cleared for one runway and takes off from another". So your example of a controller giving the wrong instruction is not relevant. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Jul 30 '17 at 1:49
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It depends. There could be any number of reasons for such a mistake, and it is rarely the mistake of any one single person.

Within aviation, we don't really talk about responsibility the way you seem to imply in your question. In many other industries, when a mistake happens, an investigation is initiated with the purpose of finding and punishing the responsible party. In aviation, it is believed that no one makes mistakes on purpose; if a plane takes off from a wrong runway, no one meant for it to happen.

So accident and incident investigation in aviation does not focus on finding someone responsible. Instead, the investigation focuses on figuring out how a similar incident/accident can be prevented in the future. That is why ICAO Annex 13 says:

The sole objective of the investigation of an accident or incident shall be the prevention of accidents and incidents. It is not the purpose of this activity to apportion blame or liability

If someone takes off from another runway than intended, the investigators will not just look at who made the mistake, but rather why the mistake was made. There could be any number of reasons for this. Very often, there are hidden latent threats somewhere in the system.

Maybe the lights at the airport were not sufficient, maybe the signs guiding the aircraft to the runway were misleading, maybe the taxiway layout is confusing, maybe the ground radar was inoperative when it should have been working, maybe the airline had scheduled the crew in a way that imposes fatigue in the cockpit, maybe the procedures are insufficient - I could go on.

The point here is, these potential causes are all things that can be changed in order to prevent the same incident from happening again. You can put up better signs or repair the ground radar, etc. Whereas, if you simple decide that the pilot or controller is to blame and then fire them, without removing the latent threats, then it's more than likely that another pilot or controller will make the same mistake in the future. What are you going to do then - fire them as well?

The whole idea is, instead of focusing on punishing people for their mistakes, if you try to understand what caused them to make those mistakes, you will not only learn much more, but you will also encourage people to report more incidents, that may not otherwise have been reported. We call this Just Culture, and it is all part of the reasons why aviation remains to be one of the safest ways you can possibly travel.

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  • $\begingroup$ When you say "Within aviation, we don't really talk about . . . " I'm wondering who the "we" is. It's as if I pose an important, often discussed issue regarding pilot/controller responsibilities, removes me from being considered "Within aviation" (seems a bit condescending). From my aviation career I'm able to look back at circumstances that have generated lots of conversations and insight from the novice to the most experienced professional. Your misinformed characterization of the meaning of "responsibility" fully misses the point of my question. $\endgroup$ – 757toga Jul 30 '17 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @757toga I'm sorry to hear that I have misunderstood your question. Could you please try to clarify what it is you are asking? You are asking who is "at fault" - do you mean legally speaking or otherwise? As your question is currently written, I don't know how else to answer. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jul 30 '17 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ The question I posed is who or what is responsible; Who/what is at fault. Perhaps, were it not for the controller failing to effectively use the ASDE (surface radar) the pilot may have been "prevented" (by ATC) from making the mistake. The pilot would be at "fault" but there may be some ATC responsibility affixed if internal procedures required (during poor vis ) for ATC to observe the aircraft's position on the surface before issuing a clearance. Lot's of possibilities. This is why I posed the question. Many experienced, smart people on this exchange. Lecturing is not productive. $\endgroup$ – 757toga Jul 30 '17 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ @757toga Exactly, lots of possibilities. Hence my answer: it depends. There is no single answer, since the circumstances will depend on the specific incident. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jul 30 '17 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ The way I see it, I am not the one 'lecturing' here. I will leave my answer as it is, but refrain from further comments unless they are actually about understanding your question. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jul 30 '17 at 14:42
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Always the pilot's fault. Why would it be the controller's? If the controller says to depart on 13R and the pilot departs on 13L, then it is pilot's fault.

If a pilot has any question whether they are in the right place, they should ask the tower.

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