As an aviation geek, I spend way too much of my free time tracking flights on Flightradar24, and listening to air traffic control audio. Along those lines, here’s an interesting exchange between a United Airlines pilot and an air traffic controller. We sometimes hear audio of air traffic controllers losing their patience with pilots, but in this case it’s the other way around…
United Boeing 737 has two go arounds at SFO due to traffic
VASAviation does a great job posting videos to YouTube with interesting air traffic control audio, as well as a visualization of what happened. An interaction that I find particularly interesting was just uploaded, whereby a pilot was angry after having to perform two (probably unnecessary) go arounds.
This incident occurred on May 12, 2023, and involves United Airlines flight UA1390 from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco (SFO). The flight was operated by a roughly 14-year-old Boeing 737-900 with the registration code N75428.
The aircraft was cleared to land on runway 28L. Shortly thereafter, while the 737 was on a four mile final, the air traffic controller cleared another United aircraft to line up on the runway and wait. That aircraft had to wait for another jet to clear the runway before it could take off, and at this point the 737 was on a final of less than two miles.
Unfortunately there didn’t end up being enough spacing, so the 737 had to go around. Okay, fair enough, sometimes that happens. Air traffic controllers have hard jobs and there’s quite a bit of variability, so spacing isn’t always going to work out exactly right.
The United 737 then initiated its second approach to runway 28L, and basically the same thing happened. The jet received landing clearance, then another plane was told to line up on the runway and wait, and then another aircraft had to clear the runway. There didn’t end up being enough spacing, so the 737 had to go around… again.
United pilot lets air traffic controllers have it
After having to go around for a second time for the same reason, the United pilot called out the tower controller, saying “you guys gotta do better than than this, that’s twice.” The tower controller responds with ” alright, talk to NorCal about that.” In other words, the tower controller is blaming this on the approach frequency, even though the tower controller is clearing the departing aircraft to taxi onto the runway.
When the pilot then talks to NorCal departure, here’s how that goes:
Pilot: “What’s going on, that’s twice?”
Controller: “I’m not sure.”
Pilot: “This is unacceptable, come on, well, let’s not do this again.”
Controller: “We don’t work in the tower, sir.”
Pilot: They told me to talk to you.”
Then when the pilot switches to NorCal approach, here’s how that goes:
Pilot: “Can we make sure we don’t put anyone on the runway anymore?”
Controller: “We’re wondering the same thing, we’ve got a few over here, and we’ll make sure you land this time.”
Pilot: “Yeah, definitely file a report for this, this is just unacceptable.”
Controller: “We are 100% in agreeance with you, sorry for it.”
Pilot: “Thanks. I know it’s not your fault, but unfortunately you’re the only one I’ve got to vent to. He told me to talk to you guys, that’s the funny part.”
Controller: “That’s great. Apparently aircraft on the ground have priority over aircraft in the air. Again, just for your information, we’ve had issues with the tower here for a while as far as some of these go arounds, things like that, but I think it’s more fit for an official report because we’re hearing now that they’re trying to blame us for our speeds, but I don’t know what’s wrong with what we did.”
Pilot: “Yeah, I’ll fill one out for sure. I mean, it’s just unacceptable, two go arounds for the same issue, something’s gotta happen with that.”
Controller: “I agree with you 100%.”
On the third attempt, the United 737 finally landed, after a roughly 30 minute delay from the two go arounds.
There’s some interesting air traffic control audio of a United 737 being subjected to two go arounds at San Francisco Airport. Both go arounds were due to lack of spacing, and in both cases it was because an aircraft was cleared to taxi onto the runway for takeoff, but there wasn’t enough separation.
I of course understand that air traffic controllers are overworked and under a lot of pressure to avoid delays, and they also can’t perfectly predict how long it will take aircraft to clear the runway, start their takeoff roll, etc.
At the same time, from the pilot’s perspective, I can also appreciate the frustration of having two unnecessary go arounds in a row for the same exact reason. It’s interesting that the tower controller then blames NorCal, but the NorCal controller is 100% in agreement with the pilot.
What do you make of this interaction between the United pilot and air traffic controllers?