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.)