In-flight emergency exposes alarming problem with key alert systems at Honolulu’s airport

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Published: Sep. 9, 2020 at 9:56 AM HST|Updated: Sep. 9, 2020 at 9:59 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - When an aircraft has an emergency, seconds make a difference.

But Hawaii News Now has learned the system that simultaneously alerts first responders of an emergency at Honolulu’s airport has not worked in months and another alert system is not functioning properly.

That situation led to a delay in notifying responders following an in-flight emergency Saturday.

On Saturday night, an Atlas Air flight with 212 people on board had to turn around minutes after taking off from the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Cell phone video from inside the military charter flight showed flames shooting from one of the engines and emergency lights on in the cabin.

When an emergency like that happens, two notification systems are used to get rescue crews in place.

The primary crash network allows everyone on the federal level to be notified at one time, including the FAA tower, Hickam tower and airfield, the Joint Dispatch Center and Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting.

Because the system has been down, each agency has to be called one by one — using a landline.

Primary crash network system at HNL
Primary crash network system at HNL(None)

Aviation expert Peter Forman said that alone is going to cause a delay.

And those wasted minutes “could be the difference between life and death so that’s really important.”

The secondary crash network is a separate system to notify all state level responders: Airport medical staff, the Sheriffs Division, and the airport duty manager, to name a few.

Secondary Crash Network system at HNL
Secondary Crash Network system at HNL(None)

But the secondary network was not functioning Saturday during the Atlas Air emergency.

Sources say it took multiple attempts before it worked.

While that didn’t impact the incident directly because the Boeing 767 had enough elevation to turn around, Forman said should something happen during takeoff or landing that kind of delay could be disastrous.

“The biggest problem is, if there is all of a sudden an accident,” said Forman.

"Everybody who is working the various positions in the tower need to keep working those positions. You don’t have a lot of excess people to get on the phone and start calling.”

Asked about the issues with the notification systems, the state Department of Transportation said: “A capable and federally-approved back up system is in use."

The brief, one line statement confirms the primary system is not functional but doesn’t provide any details on the back-up system performance during the Atlas Air incident.

A spokesman for the FAA said the agency is looking into the issue.

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