Tokyo’s Haneda Airport Briefly Closed After Japan Airlines Flight Burst Into Flames

Video shows the plane skidding along the tarmac as it caught fire. All 379 passengers onboard the Japan Airlines flight survived, but five Coast Guard crew members perished in the crash that caused the blaze.

Haneda Airport departure board with empty check-in counters in the background

Haneda Airport was temporarily closed on January 2 as rescue workers dealt with a fire that broke out on Japan Airlines Flight 516.

Photo by Shutterstock

“We regret to inform you that on the evening of January 2, JL516 was involved in a collision with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft during its landing at Haneda Airport, resulting in a fire on the runway. Our thoughts and prayers are with the deceased members of the Japan Coast Guard,” Japan Airlines wrote in a memo about a Tuesday evening runway collision that resulted in the Japan Airlines flight 516 erupting into flames.

All 379 people onboard the Japan Airlines flight managed to evacuate before the aircraft became fully engulfed in fire. The collision, however, killed five crew members of the Coast Guard’s Bombardier Dash-8 plane, which was preparing to deliver aid to Japan’s west coast, where a major earthquake had struck on Monday, the Associated Press reported. The pilot of the Coast Guard plane is said to have survived.

The fact that everyone onboard the Japan Airlines flight, including 367 passengers and 12 crew, made it out alive is nothing short of a “miracle,” says air-safety specialist and journalist Christine Negroni, who has written two books on aviation disasters, Deadly Departure (William Morrow, 2000) and The Crash Detectives (Penguin, 2016).

“That you can have an accident like this where the plane is essentially engulfed in flames and everyone escapes, that’s amazing. That’s how far we’ve progressed in aviation,” Negroni tells AFAR.

The runway accident occurred shortly before 6 p.m. local time; video footage of the incident shows the JAL Airbus A350 airplane bursting into flames as it slides along the tarmac at Tokyo Haneda Airport, where it landed after taking off from New Chitose Airport near Sapporo. Reuters reported that the fire burned for more than six hours and that 14 passengers were injured. Tokyo Haneda closed after the accident, but reopened several hours later.

An investigation will attempt to determine the exact cause of the collision. “Clearly the big question is: Why were two airplanes in the same place at the same time? That never should happen,” says Negroni.

She cites several factors that likely contributed to the passengers of the Japan Airlines flight being able to survive the accident. For one, they benefited from a century of developments in aviation safety, including the late 20th-century installation of 16G seats on all aircraft, which means that seats can withstand the stresses of 16 times the force of gravity, versus the previous 9G requirement. There’s also the advent of fuel tank inerting, technology that prevents the fuel tank from exploding, and the fact that “plane fabric and walls and ceilings [are] harder to inflame [and that] the fabrics [are] less likely to be toxic,” says Negroni.

“If you are in an accident, and there’s an impact or a fire, the most important thing is that people are able to remain conscious and unimpeded so that they can get out,” she says, adding that she always gives travelers this piece of advice when it comes to flight safety: “Keep your shoes on during takeoff and on landing. Why? Because you may have to get out of that airplane in a hurry. If you were sitting there in your socks, how are you going to escape that burning airplane with no shoes on?”

According to Reuters, the airline said that there were no issues with the aircraft when it left New Chitose Airport or during the flight and that it had been cleared to land by air traffic control.

Airbus issued a statement that the A350 aircraft involved in the accident had been delivered to Japan Airlines in November 2021 and had been powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines. Airbus said it would be assisting with the investigation and had sent a team of experts to the site.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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