Japan Airlines plane bursts into flames on Tokyo runway after collision

All passengers were evacuated but five of six crew on another plane, carrying aid to earthquake-hit west coast, have died.

Firefighters work at Haneda International Airport after Japan Airlines' A350 airplane caught on fire, in Tokyo, Japan
Firefighters work at Tokyo's Haneda airport after a Japan Airlines A350 aeroplane burst into flames [Issei Kato/Reuters]

Hundreds of people have been evacuated from a Japan Airlines plane after it burst into flames at Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

The Airbus A350 plane skidded down the runway shortly before 6pm (09:00 GMT) on Tuesday, following a collision with a small aircraft after it landed. All 379 passengers on board the Japan Airlines (JAL) plane were safely evacuated, Japanese transport minister Tetsuo Saito told reporters.

Japan’s Coast Guard said one of its planes – bound for Niigata on Japan’s western coast to provide aid after Monday’s huge earthquake – was the other aircraft involved in the collision. Five of the six crew members on board died, Saito said.

(Al Jazeera)

The 39-year-old captain was injured but escaped, he added, cautioning that “we’re not at the stage to explain the cause” of the accident.

Local TV video showed a large eruption of fire and smoke from the side of the Japan Airlines plane as it taxied on a runway. The area around the wing then caught fire.

Passengers were then shown leaving the aircraft via an emergency chute.

Later video showed fire crews working to put out the blaze with streams of water as the flames spread to much of the plane.

An explosive fireball could then be seen with the aircraft badly damaged. The fire was not extinguished until shortly after midnight, after burning for more than six hours, broadcaster TBS reported citing the fire department.

A spokesperson at JAL said the aircraft had flown in from New Chitose Airport on the northern island of Hokkaido.

“I was wondering what happened and then I felt the airplane tilted to the side at the runway and felt a big bump,” Satoshi Yamake,  who was on board the plane. “The flight attendants told us to stay calm and instructed us to get off the plane.”

Fourteen people were injured, according to Japan Airlines, but none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

Haneda is one of the busiest airports in Japan, and the New Year is one of the most popular times for travel.

Coast Guard spokesperson Yoshinori Yanagishima said its plane was MA-722, a Bombardier Dash-8, which was based at Haneda.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida praised those who had died.

“These were employees who had a high sense of mission and responsibility for the affected areas. It’s very regrettable,” he told reporters.

“I express my respect and gratitude to their sense of mission,” Kishida said.

‘It was a miracle’

Passengers and aviation experts praised the speed of the evacuation of the JAL plane.

“I heard an explosion about 10 minutes after everyone and I got off the plane,” said 28-year-old passenger Tsubasa Sawada. “I can only say it was a miracle, we could have died if we were late.”

Paul Hayes, director of air safety at UK-based aviation consultancy Ascend by Cirium, noted that no-one leaving the plane appeared to be carrying hand luggage – safety agencies have warned for years that pausing to collect carry-on bags during an evacuation risks lives.

“The cabin crew must have done an excellent job… It was a miracle that all the passengers got off,” he said.

The aircraft’s in-flight announcement system did not work during the evacuation, so crew members used megaphones to give instructions, Japan Airlines said in a statement.

A JAL official told a press briefing it was the airline’s understanding that the flight had received permission to land, although he added that exchanges with flight control were still under investigation.

There had been no reports of engine or other problems on the aircraft before it landed at Haneda.

Alex Macheras, an aviation analyst, said it was still “very early” in terms of trying to grasp what exactly happened.

“As is often the case with such incidents, what it appears [to be the case] in the first couple of minutes and hours, can be very different to what actually happened, and what we learn later in the investigation process,” he told Al Jazeera.

The crash is the first significant accident involving the twin-engine Airbus A350, which has been in service since 2015.

Haneda was closed after the crash but three runways were later opened. Some airlines reported delays and cancellations as a result.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies