Ridiculous: Air Canada Flight Has To Declare “Mayday” Four Times Before Being Allowed To Land

Filed Under: Air Canada

Well this is just plain ridiculous. Given that pilots around the world all have different native languages, terms used when communicating with air traffic control are heavily standardized to avoid miscommunication. When it comes to a serious situation, there are a few different terms that pilots use to communicate with air traffic control. Two of the most common are “mayday” and “pan-pan.” The FAA defines these two terms as follows:

  • Mayday — The international radiotelephony distress signal. When repeated three times, it indicates imminent and grave danger and that immediate assistance is requested.
  • Pan-pan — The international radio-telephony urgency signal. When repeated three times, indicates uncertainty or alert followed by the nature of the urgency.

When a pilot communicates a mayday, it’s supposed to be an air traffic controller’s first priority, because as you can see based on the definitions above, it’s a distress signal that’s only used when there’s imminent and grave danger. I’d also add that there’s a lot of accountability when pilots use this (paperwork, etc.), so this isn’t a term pilots are going to use loosely to get priority landing clearance because they’re tired of staying in a holding pattern, etc.

Well, The Aviation Herald has the story of how an Air Canada 787-9 was approaching Mumbai and had to make a “mayday” call four times before ATC accommodated them. This happened on Air Canada flight 46 from Toronto to Mumbai on September 18, when there was some weather while approaching Mumbai. Air traffic control canceled Air Canada’s landing clearance due to a runway excursion by another aircraft, meaning the Air Canada 787 had to circle. Then this happened:

After about an hour the crew decided to divert to their planned alternate airport and set course, however, shortly afterwards ATC told the crew that the alternate was unable to accomodate them due to being at maximum capacity. The crew consulted with dispatch and decided to divert to Hyderabad (India). The aircraft climbed to FL250 and was enroute to Hyderabad when ATC told them, that Hyderabad also was unable to accomodate them due to being at maximum capacity. The flight crew declared Mayday due to being low on fuel, however, ATC instructed them to enter a hold and tried to divert them several times before giving them a direct route to Hyderabad following the fourth (!) Mayday declaration. The aircraft landed on Hyderabad’s runway 09L 118 minutes after aborting the approach to Mumbai.

The Canadian TSB reported: “The operator reported that ATC continued trying to divert the flight or attempted to place it in another hold. The flight crew had to declare MAYDAY four times before ATC cleared them for the approach into VOHS. The TSB is in contact with India’s AAIB.”

There’s a difference between an airport being at “maximum capacity” and an airport not being able to accommodate a “mayday.” Hopefully the air traffic controller gets a stern talking to…

(Tip of the hat to Sean M.)

  1. geeez …. Lucky’s blog articles so perfectly timed to appear right after the threads of airliners.net again, and rarely ever giving any hat-tip whatsoever.

  2. @henry LAX: There’s a HT to Sean M. at the very end of the post… Don’t know if he’s the Post Author on airliners.net, though. The original article is from avherald.com, so lots of potentiality for HTs. Which one is the “correct” one?

  3. @AdamR @HenryLAX I’m banned from airliners.net so I have no idea what they said there. My avsec manager forwarded me a Facebook article about this and I passed it on to Ben since I know this kind of stuff interests him.

  4. Various airline pilots I’ve met have told me their least favorite place to fly to is India exactly because of their very difficult to deal with ATC. This is absolutely ridiculous and someday something grave will happen.

  5. @Steve: even if something grave does happen, if it doesnt involve them personally, those ATCs won’t give a sh*t. Cant expect any more of them.

  6. India again.

    I guess there just wasn’t time between defecating in the streets and abducting women in a rape van.

    Yeah, that’s harsh. And that’s reality.

  7. Maybe its a lost in translation, but “The aircraft landed on Hyderabad’s runway 09L 118 minutes after aborting the approach to Mumbai” seems incredibly improbable. Hyderabad is about 700km from Mumbai, which is about an hour flight time.

  8. This reminds me an instant a few years ago in Shanghai. An female Korean pilot working for Chinese LCC Spring called Mayday, AFTER an Etihad airplane called Mayday. Both claimed short of fuel.

    After the air controller grant the Spring plane landing first and Etihad plane second, ground service checked fuel level on both. Etihad ‘s fuel level was on the borderline to be consider legit for a Mayday while the Spring ‘s fuel was far more than enough.

    It turn out it was just the pilot felt unfair to yield her landing priority so to call Mayday in protest. Her license was revoked after the investigation.

  9. Regrettably, Indians are overwhlemingly callous AND incompetent – so this kind of an incident does not surprise me at all. By the way, I am Indian and know what I am talking about!

  10. Indian Airports poorly equipped to handle mass diversions. This flight was not an isolated incident, but rather a massive diversion due to an extreme weather event and aircraft incident on the runway.

    Additional Information:

    – 303mm (1 Foot of Rain) of rain over a 24 hour period
    – 56 Flights Diverted
    – Main Runway blocked by disabled SpiceJet Aircraft.
    – Some of the diversion airports included: BLR, AMD, GOI, HYD, BDQ, NAG, DEL and finally Muscat when all others were full.


  11. I was enroute to Mumbai that day and the Spicejet incident, coupled with extreme rains had closed the main runway causing every aircraft to be diverted. It was very clear that no aircrafts were landing at either of the runways. Smaller planes went to Ahmedabad & Baroda while bigger ones had to go to Hyderabad(including my BA). These long haul aircraft have enough fuel to factor diversions to alternate airports.
    Why was Air Canada the only one declaring Mayday? Why did they not divert straightaway to HYD? BA had sufficient fuel for an hour of circling + diversion. Go figure!
    BA pilot told us that every airline pilot approaching Mumbai wanted preferential treatment and werre flooding the radio with nonsense requests to get attention.

    Yes it was chaos that day and next – I think ATC did the best it could given the congestion even on a normal day in Mumbai.

    I’ve been at JFK during summer thunders(which is 50% of what Mumbai was seeing) and JFK is thrown completely out of use for hours. Mumbai did well – and had it not been for the spicejet error, it would have been BAU.

  12. No such thing as “maximum capacity” when a pilot declares ‘mayday’. If need be, the other traffic diverts. There is no other ‘priority’.

    I hope this somehow gets some international attention to the right governing boards and hopefully some hefty fines. This could have been tragic.

  13. It makes me endlessly sad that these posts turn into comments that have to become generalizations about specific societies or countries. At what point can we begin to question a specific person as to a shortcoming and not their entire nation? Or maybe at the most the training processes within an organization. But to damn an entire nation over and over is knee jerk racism (in the case of race) or just wrong (in the case of anti-((insert nation here)) sentiments). An Indian air traffic controller made a mistake. Why should my dear friend in Delhi who works hard to build trust and business be made to pay with stereotype rubbish that is not at all indicative on the whole? It seems that many of you do nothing more than promote the continuation of this behavior and misperception thereby dooming a nation that is mostly made up of decent and loving people so as to live a stigma forever.

  14. Lucky, has there ever been a known incident where ATC to not give clearance for a plane to land (due to capacity or whatever other reason) but the captain fearing a dire situation went ahead and proceeded with the landing for the safety of those on the plane? I would think at the end of the day the plane in distress would ultimately be more important than what’s happening on the ground.

  15. @ Matthewsf — Hmmm, that’s a good question, maybe someone else can chime in there, as I’m sure it has happened. The inverse certainly has — Avianca 52 crashed because it ran out of fuel as the pilots kept them in a holding pattern, and there was miscommunication about the urgency of the situation.

  16. Yepper – A pilot that declares a faslse Mayday to queue jump eould be sacked.

    AC should have had immediate clearance for any approach it requests

  17. Never use mayday over seas. PanPanPan then do what you gotta do. Like declaring min fuel over there, waste of time

  18. Stuart – On the whole, the human race is pretty unpleasant. You’re never, ever going to stop it.

  19. @Jay: Interesting. I didn’t appreciate how close Muscat is to India. I suppose they didn’t divert to Karachi because of political tensions?

    @trojans: It says the AC flight also circled for an hour before being diverted. Given how much farther it is to BOM from YYZ than LHR, I think it’s safe to assume AC would have a smaller cushion when they reach India than BA.

    @Stuart: The blatant racism is obviously wrong, but cultural factors do play a role in situations like this. You can’t deny that such an incident is less likely to occur at MUC than BOM.

  20. You’re confusing the professionalism between FAA controllers and Mumbai controllers. Having just spent 2 yrs in Iraq training controllers after 30 yrs at ATL you’d be amazed at the difference of how certain cultures care about emergencies.

  21. oh india….

    @stuart stereotypes exist for a reason. im sure your dear friend in mumbai would agree about negative things in his country. i sure do recognize negative issues sometimes about mine. its life, not racism.

  22. When an aircraft declares mayday, that aircraft should become the airport’s main priority. Everything else can wait

  23. It gets worse. All these aviation experts/ sky-gods passing their judgments on a situation where of course they are completely privy to all the facts. Led by Captain Lucky of course.

    I don’t get it. I don’t pass judgment on any medical controversies despite having 2 accomplished medics in my immediate family. Don’t know what I’m talking about, and don’t know the facts = gonna keep my mouth and keyboard shut.

    Combined with increased borderline implied racism, losing a fan here Lucky.

    I know I know…You don’t care obviously. You’re a rich celebrity now. A pilot you ain’t though. Or an air traffic controller.

    I am a pilot and have declared a couple emergencies in my career. As an necessary integration with flight crew very very rarely ATC is obstructive, but for the most part all over the world I appreciate their professionalism and huge help on a daily basis in keeping passengers and my own ass safe.

  24. Initially, I was shocked about the situation that happened in Mumbai but then I confirmed that it was indeed the day of super rain and an entire city was flooding in the rain. It wasn’t the best day for anyone including people living in the city. If it was one aircraft that was in trouble, it would have been a callous act. However, that day none of the planes landed. Only Thai Airways 777 was allowed to land.

    Salute to those who showed up to the work and despite all craziness where every single domestic or international aircraft was being re-routed. They could have taken leave like rest of the city goers as it was a high alert day and govt asked everyone to stay at home. Those working at ATC weren’t provided extra help or any pickup/drop that day despite the crazy rains.

  25. A white American senior citizen shoots and kills 50 people and hurts 500 for no apparent reason, and no one passes judgment on white senior Americans. (Thank God the Nevada shooter wasn’t a minority, or the whole country would be passing judgment against the race/religion/nationality). A brown Indian ATC disregards a Mayday call and the Internet is out to stereotype the whole country and to rationalize the stereotype. Y’all should buy a mirror and look at it.

  26. @Stuart, @CodyShah and @sleepyTron – Thank you for the voice of reason.

    I’d like everyone to remember that our love for aviation also comes from the fact that it allows us to go to different countries, different airports, that inner excitement of meeting people from different nationalities and different people.

    It is quite shameful that a mistake by any human being allows you to bring up the race and nationality. A couple of months back AC pilots themselves faced issues and a near catastrophe was prevented at SFO airport.

    @Lucky I also request you to not allow this website to be a place where bigots can have a place to say. You fly around the world and have people from all over the world reading this website, so time has indeed come to censor some comments and put a policy in place so that all your fans will feel equally respected.

  27. LUCKY .. Well I’m from Mumbai .. the day this incident took place , a Spicejet 737 skid off the runway and got stuck in mud .. this was due to very low visibility and very choppy and bad rainy weather. Well after the 737 got stuck in mud , all operations were shifted on the smaller secondary runway due to which lots of services were cancelled including those of BA , AF , EY .. And the ATC was trying it’s best to restore operations .. the next morning all operations resumed . I know that AC declared Mayday but really it was quite a challenge for the ATC too and they managed it quite well.

  28. @Cody Shah “Salute to those who showed up to the work and despite all craziness where every single domestic or international aircraft was being re-routed. They could have taken leave like rest of the city goers as it was a high alert day and govt asked everyone to stay at home.”

    No they couldn’t. The ATC is a vital part of the airport, and by extension, the government. Much like the people who work in the military, or electric power plant, they have to work if it is their shift, no matter what. Do they deserve our respect? Yes. But is it also wise to think that they could have stayed home if they wanted to? Absolutely not. Their a**es would’ve been fired.

  29. The reason people don’t generalize about white Americans when the Mandalay shooting happens is that it’s out of the ordinary for white Americans to do such a thing.

    We, as a group, are one of the most peaceful and civilized cultures around (tip: that’s why everyone migrates to America). Unfortunately CNN et al. have declared open season on whites, which is blatantly racist.

    It’s not out of the ordinary for Indians to not give a shit about other people, as witnessed again by Indians agreeing this is par for the course for India.

  30. @ William Y

    “white Americans … as a group, are one of the most peaceful and civilized cultures around”

    You’re either being sarcastic or trolling, right?

    Otherwise your absence of even the most basic level of self-awareness is terrifying.

  31. The pilots of the Avianca plane that ran out of fuel never used the word “emergency”

    Pan pan was only used by Swiss air 111

  32. Some so called Aviation Experts trying and bossing out here in the comment section. Everyone seems to know only one part of the story. Nobody knows about the fact that there “very” harsh weather conditions in Mumbai.

    Even if half a severe storm comes up in the west, the meda puts up a bullshit story about it. Covering up the asses of these people but the moment they hear the word India, they put up something negative. And you know whats funny ? They have no idea of what they are writing .

    Just for Example ” The aircraft landed on Hyderabad’s runway 09L 118 “minutes” after aborting the approach to Mumbai. ”
    Minutes ? Are you kidding me. It has to take friggin 1 hr 30 mins to get from BOM to HYD.

  33. Sorry Devansh and others defending this ridiculous act just because the controller was Indian. His skin color does not give him a pass. Ignoring three Mayday’s is unacceptable and I hope ICAO takes action and isn’t afraid of being labeled ‘racists’. Wrong is wrong, wherever it happens.

  34. I fault the pilots too. Pilots are allowed to disobey ATC instructions if it is an emergency. If they were running out of fuel, they should have landed- whether they were cleared or not.

  35. I have a friend who was an ATC at the time of the Avianca crash. As noted in the Wikipedia article, the Avianca first officer never said they were in an “emergency.” The problem is that pilots declare false Maydays or fuel shortages to jump the line all the time, which was why U.S. ATC required a further “declaration of emergency” to receive clearance to land. According to my friend, U.S. pilots were just as guilty as anyone else. So there is nothing particularly Indian about this story. As David S. says, declaring a false Mayday should get a pilot fired; then there would be no need for an additional “declaration of emergency.”

  36. @William Y

    “The reason people don’t generalize about white Americans when the Mandalay shooting happens is that it’s out of the ordinary for white Americans to do such a thing.

    We, as a group, are one of the most peaceful and civilized cultures around”

    In the United States White people actually commit mass shootings fairly proportional to their percentage of the population, as do Black people. Surprisingly enough to many (as it doesn’t fit the racist model), Asian people commit mass shootings at about 2.5 times the rate their population would predict, while Latino mass shooters are virtually unheard of.

    Of course Mexico is one of the most violent countries on earth, so it’s not as if Latinos are inherently more peaceful. It’s almost as if political and economic factors are more significant predictors of violence than race…

    The true source of violence is not people of one race, of course, rather people of one gender: Men.

  37. BrewerSEA: Yeah, I see you’ve fallen for the extremely faulty Youtube video about the topic.

    Pray tell, how do you define ‘mass shooting’? Yeah, I thought not.

    And why is it different from the shootings happening on the streets of Chicago? Do people die less when they’re being shot by black people – or do you just not care about their (almost always) black victims?

    Fact of the matter is: people are migrating by the millions to the civilizations built by whites. That’s fact.

    You know what’s also a fact? Remove black and Latino gun crime in New York City and gun crimes drop by 97%. Ninety. Seven. Percent.


  38. Wonder why the pilots didn’t have enough fuel in the first place… Should they not have some responsibility?

  39. Most commenters (including myself) lack the inherent industry, regulatory, and technical knowledge to be able to pass competent judgement, yet the advent of the internet and social media allows this to occur.

  40. So the airport was slosed due to a Hurricane and the pilot insisted on landing. White privilege much?

  41. They did land on a taxiway, sort off. VOHS has a taxiway which can be used as a runway. Only one can be operational.

  42. I am sure the investigation will reveal how much fuel was actually available when the plane was over BOM. If the pilots issued unjustified maydays, they should be fired. If the maydays were justified, they ATC’s should be fired. End of story.

  43. Read the entire incident on various news outlets – kudos to the ATC and the pilots for making it to the ground safely. Giving the right of way to an aircraft in distress just to have them land in situations that are equally poor is not a solution. Been in similar situations at JFK in the winter, in IAH during thunderstorms and at DEN during a blizzard. Each region has its perilous weather and no thunderstorm in the US is a contender for the monsoon rains in India. So all in all – a good efforts by all in getting the plane safely to the ground.

    I have been in two dangerous situations in flights over my fifty-two years of traveling in the air; once over ZRH and the other over ATL and NEVER in India. So I should definitely make some stereotypical racial slurs against the Swiss and the Southerners, as that is the trend in the comments sections of recent articles.

  44. William Y,

    Please promise us when you get angry you will call for help instead of reaching for the gun. Can never be sure with white terrorists.

  45. When you declare Mayday as a pilot you don’t wait anymore for ATC clearances. You just tell ATC what you are doing and where you are heading to (if you have time for that). If these Air Canada pilots were expecting the controller to put them in any arrival sequence for HYD then that’s exactly what he did. The Mayday message basically means “hey guys we are going there get everyone off the way”.

  46. @Dipri

    Does it mean to land at a closed airport with planes full of people parked on runway and taxiway? Just line up and land to show who is the boss.

    After burning all the extra fuel circling VHBB 7000-10000 feet, 16 hrs duty, unknown alternate airport, crew panicked and not responsive to any suggestion from ATC.

    There are other airports like VOHB completely empty and very close to VOHS. Hyderabad approach may have suggested that.

    Two sets(4) of ACA crew and their 24×7 OCC, should be able to handle their ONE plane, while ATC dealing with 59 others. They completely missed weather situation(tailwinds, 34-mile gusts on the second rwy) and all NOTAMs.

    Burning fuel for 98 minutes at low altitude in heavy rain was totally wrong. Not taking the first alternate(AMD) shows lack of situational awareness. Sacrificing the second alternate by burning fuel shows lack of planning. All left is to keep repeating mayday.

    If they landed with above reserve by declaring mayday, that is a career-ending offense. So it looks like they want to pre-empt by complaining to CTSB, Simon jumped on it and all aviation bloggers in the world joined the bandwagon.

  47. I flew into HYD that day from BLR, and then out of HYD the next day and had no idea any of this was going on….man, I’m glad to be back home!

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