Watch Qatar Airways A350 in scary aborted takeoff

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Product launches can have their hitches.

What could have prepared Qatar Airways for this one?

The airline wanted to be the first to fly the new Airbus A350 aircraft out of the US. It’s been feeling a little bullish lately, bristling at criticisms from US airlines that it has unfair advantages due to government subsidies.

So here was the inaugural US flight last week from JFK to Doha, Qatar, with only journalists and special guests on board.

One of those journalists was Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of travel site The Points Guy. He saw that an outside view of the takeoff was beamed to each of the business class screens. He thought he’d film it all too.

And then, in his own words: “About 18 seconds after we began rolling down JFK’s runway 22R, the aircraft self-aborted, bringing us from more than 100 mph to a loud, screeching halt in roughly 15 seconds.”

Honig said that the jolt was such that almost all the pillows and blankets on the coach seats ended up on the floor. It certainly didn’t seem too entertaining from the video he’s posted to YouTube.

There’s something a touch eerie about watching your plane speeding down the runway live on your screen. The aborted takeoff clearly disconcerted some of the passengers. Equally disconcerting, perhaps, was the request from a member of the cabin crew for Honig to stop filming.

Honig said that he and some fellow journalists were so shaken that they asked to get off the plane. He said the request was refused, which some might think a touch odd.

Instead, he said that the airline’s chief commercial officer told him that the plane had decided that the runway was too short and had simply put on the brakes entirely of its own accord. But had it really taken 18 seconds for the plane to decide: “Oh, wait. There’s not enough runway?”

Honig, though, had more immediate concerns: “I was told that we would be taxiing to a different (less glitchy) runway, and would attempt another takeoff there. If that failed, we would be allowed to disembark. In other words, we were going to be taking off again whether we wanted to or not.”

I’m not sure how happy I’d be about the promise of a less glitchy runway. I fear I might be looking for a less glitchy airline.

Still, Honig said no one was injured and the plane took off without further incident.

A Qatar spokesman told me: “I’m afraid that Qatar Airways are unable to comment on this.” Meanwhile, an Airbus spokeswoman said: “Airbus, together with our customer, are currently analyzing the event.”

In this case, the suggestion is that the technology — rather than the pilots — decided to halt the plane. I understand that Airbus doesn’t believe that to be the case. It’s well-established that no plane is supposed to be equipped with the ability for the tech to independently reject a takeoff.

Perhaps, though, the mere idea is a small presage of what will happen when our self-driving cars decide to do the same, for reasons that might not be entirely clear.

Still, in years to come when there might be no pilots at all, I wonder whether after an aborted takeoff, a robotic voice will announce: “Sorry, everyone. Runway’s too short. Giving it another go.”

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