FAA: Delta Pilots Failed To Notify ATC Before Los Angeles Fuel Dump

Credit: Rob Finlayson

The Delta Air Lines crew that dumped fuel over a school playground near Los Angeles failed to notify air traffic control (ATC) beforehand, according to the the FAA.

Paramedics from Los Angeles County Fire Department treated 17 children and nine adults for minor injuries after Delta Flight 89—operating a Boeing 777-200ER—dumped fuel over a school playground while returning for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International (LAX) Jan. 14.

The 20-year old Rolls-Royce Trent 892-powered aircraft was headed to Shanghai but returned to land after suffering what the crew told air traffic control was an engine compressor stall shortly after take-off from LAX. The aircraft turned to fly downwind over Glendale before making its approach to runway 25R where it landed safely after a 25-min. flight.

Air crews normally notify ATC prior to dumping fuel, enabling controllers to direct aircraft to an appropriate location and altitude where fuel can be released safely. Pilots have the final say, however, and can use their judgment based on the situation’s severity. 

In Flight 89’s case, the flight crew told ATC it “had the situation under control” and wanted to return to LAX immediately. A controller asked if the crew needed a special routing “to dump fuel or anything,” a recording of the conversation between the pilots and controllers revealed. The reply from Flight 89’s flight deck: “Negative.”

The FAA said a review of ATC communications showed the Flight 89 crew never contacted ATC about the issue after that, while dumping the fuel at an insufficient altitude that did not provide the substance enough time to atomize properly before reaching the ground.

“The FAA is thoroughly investigating the circumstances behind this event. There are special emergency fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major U.S. airport. These procedures call for fuel to be dumped over designated unpopulated areas, typically at higher altitudes so the fuel atomizes and disperses before it reaches the ground,” the FAA said in a statement Jan. 15.

A Delta spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the FAA’s conclusion. 

At a joint press conference with the Superintendent of the Los Angeles School District (LAUSD) Jan. 15, Delta MD for government affairs Dana Debel confirmed that schools in the area had been cleaned and cleared for students to return to class. Delta said it continues to work closely with the Los Angeles municipal government to assist individuals and property owners affected by the incident, adding that victims are not expected to experience any residual health effects from exposure to the fuel.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Boston, Ben covers advanced air mobility and is managing editor of Aviation Week Network’s AAM Report.