Oops: American Accidentally Flies Wrong Plane To Hawaii

Filed Under: American

Historically American has flown 757s and 767s on their routes to Hawaii.


This August American mixed things up by starting to fly some of their brand new A321s on their routes from Los Angeles to Hawaii. These are different than the “premium” ones they fly between New York and Los Angeles/San Francisco.

This started on August 18, when American launched twice daily A321 flights between Los Angeles and Honolulu.


The number of A321 flights to Hawaii is continuing to grow, as American is launching flights on the A321 from Los Angeles to Kona, Kahului, and Lihue.

The A321 is perfectly capable of flying to Hawaii, though like all other planes flying long distances without diversion points, it requires an ETOPS rating.

For those of you not familiar, ETOPS stands for “extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards.”

While New York to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Honolulu are roughly the same distance, you can divert almost at any point during the former flight, since it’s entirely over land. Meanwhile when you’re spending five hours crossing an ocean, there are lots more concerns and variables. ETOPS planes have life rafts, etc.


American has sub-fleets of both ETOPS and non-ETOPS A321s. In other words, some are certified to fly under ETOPS conditions (ie, over oceans), while others aren’t. And it’s important for airlines to get that right.

Well, it seems like on August 31, 2015, American didn’t get that right. On that day, American flew a non-ETOPS A321 — with tail number N137AA — from Los Angeles to Honolulu.


Apparently they realized the mistake while enroute, though they were past the “point of no return.” I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of a “ruh roh” moment that must have been.

They ended up canceling the return flight…


…and then ferried the plane back to Los Angeles empty.


The chances of having an emergency where an ETOPS plane would make a difference is infinitesimally small. But in the eyes of the FAA this is a huge no-no, and you have to wonder how a failure like this could happen, between the pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, etc.

I wonder who ended up taking the blame for that one!

(Tip of the hat to this FlyerTalk thread)

  1. I wonder what surcharge they are going to retroactively charge the passengers for this “one of a kind” experience. After all, AA seems to be acting like they don’t give a crap about DOT regulations. They cancel valid bookings – after publicly stating that they would honor them – for pax paying too little for the fare (and continue to refuse to issue a refund). Why not start adding-on extra charges after the flight?!

  2. According to your link on ETOPS, it has nothing to do with overwater flights or life rafts and everything to do with how much time the plane can fly on one engine. So the chances of having an emergency where an ETOPS plane would make a difference is actually quite significant.

  3. i would imagine dispatch would be at fault here but would love to hear Sean M. or anyone else in the industry’s perspective.

  4. Ouch….anybody know what a321 operating cost is? 10k an hour? So if they flew back empty, that’s a 50k repositioning cost. No idea what the non-etops Hawaii routing would be–but assume more than 5hr flight. Double ouch?

  5. also, i should mention that the AA crew on a recent LAX-JFK segment i flew neglected to play the safety video, verbally confirm emergency exit row pax or even do a seatbelt/tray table/etc check before takeoff and landing. spent 99% of the flight in the rear galley discussing inland empire real estate. not the most reassuring experience.

  6. It’s hard to believe that such thing happened…! You would think that dispatch would make sure that they have an ETOPS plane for the flight, but you would also think that the pilots had something about that in their checklist, no?

  7. How this could have happened with the systems American Airlines has in place is unfathomable. Maintenance, dispatch and pilots are all to blame. How could an ETOPS flight plan even have been generated for a non-ETOPS aircraft? And who signed off the ETOPS release? Unbelievable.

  8. I’m not an AA passenger, so I don’t know how they do it, but aren’t all ETOPS aircraft prominently marked “ETOPS” someplace like the landing gear doors, so that this mistake won’t happen?

    Seems like a whole lot of people had a FUBAR day…


  9. @Flip – I’m curious too.

    “What exactly is the difference between ETOPS and non-ETOPS A321s?”


  10. Ultimately it’s the Pilot who is at fault, he should have known his aircraft was not ETOPS certified. Also when he boarded the flight and seeing the layout of the plane would have been a dead giveaway…

  11. ETOPS airplanes have to have some extra redundant systems, things like extended cargo fire suppression, long range communication systems, and be certified that everything essential to ETOPS operation is working prior to the flight. It’s not a simple thing.

  12. This concerns me as far as the what kind of preflight check the pilot or copilot actually did. I fly AS and all of their planes have the fleet number on both nose gear doors. For example, if the plane’s tail number is N528AS and it is a B738 it will say 528-800 on both gear doors. If the plane is ETOPS rated, the gear doors would say 528-800EOTPS. The exterior preflight check always gets performed first because if that fails, there is no need to continue with any further checklists.

  13. Are you sure this article was researched correctly? American flies a special “A321H” to Hawaii, and this aircraft was launched in August. This is different than the “A321S” and the “A321T”, which is also in American’s aircraft fleet and used for different routes such as transcon flights.

  14. I have a slightly different view which I offer as a costumer. If I was a passenger on that flight, I unknowingly and unwillingly assumed a serious risk of the loss of my life. While I understand, according to Lucky that this was purportedly extremely small, i nevertheless paid a fare for a flight I never bargained for when I entered a contract of carriage with AA. Fair compensation for AA’s breach of that contact would at least be a refund of the fare I paid. Aside from liability for any loss of life had the lane gone down for reasons related to the non certification relate reasons, AA’s damages would’ve enhanced for such gross and unforgivable negligence in allowing it to fly over water.

  15. @Dawn Bavaro
    Dawn, obviously you are not a pilot. The Pilot In Command (PIC) has the final say on whether the flight takes off or not. It is also a failure of dispatch put the PIC is ultimately responsible for the SAFE operation of his/her aircraft. See my previous comment on the PIC not noticing that his assigned a/c was not ETOPS certified. Maybe you should blame the flight attendants too.

  16. @Jonathan. I may be wrong about this, but I believe if there’s no damages you don’t have a grounds for a legal case, although I think it would be a good move for AA to refund the affected passengers airfares. However, I am not a lawyer, I just play one on TV.

  17. To build on what someone mentioned above, an ETOPS certified aircraft undergoes a more stringent MX inspection cycle, has redundant systems, additional fire suppression capabilities and requires pilots to comply with enroute MX actions at certain intervals. There’s a lot to it. ETOPS also doesn’t necessarily mean the aircraft is operating over water, there is over land ETOPS as well. Its all dependant suitable airports over the route to be flown. Over the lower 48, ETOPS isn’t even a thought but it comes into play over northern Canada, Russia, China and of course areas over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

  18. @Dan you really need to make sure you have the right information before you post. Jeff Smisek was the CEO of United not American Airlines. Just a little mistake and no CEOs don’t determine which planes go where.

    And one can assume that there was no public announcement to the passengers about this – who except a few would even know what it meant so I am somewhat suspicious that this was conveyed to the passengers. – and there is no basis for damages because if you were on that flight AA got you there w/o a problem. I don’t play a lawyer but I am licensed to practice in two states and so I have a vague idea of what might be required to bring a lawsuit.

    And I also find it rather hilarious that @pavel would actually try to denegrate flight attendants and AA by stating that there was no safety demonstration on your cross county trip. FAs do the safety demonstration almost without thinking. So your claim just doesn’t ring true. And seasoned fliers on the flight would certainly have noticed and twittered it all over. Don’t try to make yourself look important. It doesn’t look good.

  19. dont try to blame the pilots for this one.
    There is generally nothing in any paperwork ie the aircraft tech log the pilots are required to check regarding Etops other than the Etops pre flight check conducted by an engineer.
    Etops pre flight check conducted off we go.
    The engineer would be simply sent to gate such and such to conduct an Etops pre flight.
    The problem lays squarely at operations and maintenance controls feet.
    As for labels on nose gear doors did anyone think that maybe the aircraft doesn’t go to the paint shop the minute after it gets Etoos certified?
    The big problem is AA.
    Many airlines for this reason certify all the aircraft Etops not just a portion.
    Better maintenance standards required closer flight following etc.
    Oh it has zero to do with life rafts.

  20. I talked to an AA pilot friend of mine. His quote: “Those poor bastards (Pilots) in LAX though, the A321H looks exactly like any other A321. The only way to tell is there are some stickers on the logbook and aircraft.”

  21. @pavel now you are just telling stories. It is impossible for you to know that all those duties were neglected.

  22. Ultimately the crew fudged up, there is no sugar coating it. That’s why they get paid the big bucks, this is inexcusable. Most people won’t understand the severity of this, but this is HUGE for a company that just started its etops program with the 321s. Every airline’s logbook I have seen is marked with a big bold etops sticker, kinda hard to miss, am sure AA is not the exception. It should also be marked somewhere in the nose gear area. The first thing pilots should do is check the logbook. Duhh step 1. This is a royal mess. A big f**** up by routing, dispatch, maintenance and finally the crew. Is almost hilarious how there are safeguards in place to prevent all this from happening and none of them worked.

  23. I too “got” the Smisek joke. Dan was NOT claiming Smisek was the head of AA. AFAIK, it was just one single poster who did not get it and wanted to “correct” other commenters. There’s always one, right? 😉

  24. This is akin to the U.S. Air Force accidentally flying live nukes across the country and only realizing it after the first leg of the trip was completed.

    As former presidential candidate (x2) Rick Perry would say “oops”.

  25. For the record. As per Federal Air Regulations the PIC and the DISPATCHER have joint Legal responsibility for the operation of the flight. While there would be some blame to share with Aircraft Routing Dept. the ones that will get “stepped” on first will be the Pilots and the Dispatcher. And as far as aircraft performance is concerned there is little to no difference between and ETOPS certified and non-certified aircraft.

  26. I am very sad that there seems to be a raft of posts that want to blame pilots, blame dispatch, blame whatever!! This is a systemic issue that a Non-ETOPS aircraft was assigned to a ETOPS flight. How did that happen?
    Yes, there were further chances for someone to pick this issue up,dispatch, pilots, engineers, cabin crew, but why didn’t that happen?
    Ever heard of the Swiss Cheese model, this was a perfect example of how the holes in the cheese kept lining up nicely, but fortunately didn’t end up in an accident or incident.


    Hopefully a quality or safety dept. at American will be addressing these issues.

  27. Ouch, that’s a big no-no. Multiple failures in the AA system. Plane should have never been dispatched and pilots must notice this. While I’m not familiar with AA’s procedures, check ETOPS certification was always part of our pre-flight checklist.

  28. You guys all clearly know more about the tech and DOT side of things than I do but even I can read ETOPS on nose gear doors.

  29. Wow! As a flight attendant, myself, it is even our job to pay attention to those sort of details! I KNOW when I am flying over water, and I KNOW that I am on at ETOPS or ER aircraft…. If I am not, I am definitely bringing that to the pilots attention! This is awful, just adds to the reasons why I don’t fly AA!

  30. Everybody here forgot to blame the real one for this mistake, The Captain, he never should accepted that aircraft to make the flight, he knows a the moment he start to check list that it was a wrong airplane for a wrong route. This would never happened in VARIG the company that I flew for 25 years.

  31. Years ago I worked in an airline fight dispatch office. An adjacent office was where ship routing was located. Routing was responsible for assigning ships on flights. Was this simply a ship routing office error?

  32. ETOPS since 2007 has stood for ExTended OPerationS. This came about due to changes in the program that incorporated triple and quad engined aircraft.

    Dispatch and the pilots definitely are to blame, maintenance possibly. I can’t reference what the procedure at AA is though I can at AS. Before any ETOPS flight a ETOPS pre departure check is performed by maintenance, entered in the logbook and maintenance control is notified. The notification entails the L/P #, whether the PDC is good or not, oils added to the engines and that all deferrals have been checked to see if they would restrict the aircraft. The controller records the info, the oils added are entered in a monitoring program that tracks and makes sure the consumtion rate isn’t exceeded. The controller will also check to make sure there are no current restrictions appllied to the aircraft. Only then will dispatch be notified that the aircraft is released from maintenance for a ETOPS flight.

  33. This response is for ALL OF YOU who feel that the pilot/Captain/Pilot In Command (PIC) is NOT RESPONSIBLE for this screw up. The PIC has the ultimate and final say on what happens on a flight. He/she is responsible for ALL souls on board. Captains get paid six-figure incomes NOT to screw up. This pilot failed the last point of failure, to confirm aircraft type which is just as important as checking other factors such as weather and weight and balance. Any failures in these calculations/checks can doom a flight. Even though the likelihood that this action would have doomed this flight, nothing in flying is 100%. Had this plane has a critical engine failure during this flight and the plane had to ditch in the ocean, this would have been front page news. THE PIC IS ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SAFE OPERATION OF ANY FLIGHT.

    BTW – Alaska Airlines has the letters ETOPS on both nose gear doors. It is impossible for the pilot doing the exterior preflight check to miss this. End of story.

  34. I read with interest comments about Dispatch error as if to say Pilots are not responsible for reading the log to ensure that all the maintenance is done and signed off correctly so the question of th ETOPS check been signed of in the log comes up. Did our captain actually check to see if it was done? Hmmm . Additionally the Captain signs the release saying he is aware if the conditions which exist and agrees that th flight can be conducted legally. A bunch of people dropped the catch. There is enough mudnya on this to parcel some out to every one involved and still some left over but ultimately the captain has to own this one.

  35. When i worked at AA i was a ETOPS certified mechanic. Not all ETOPS are painted on the nose doors, There is maint check card for any ETOPS leaving a USA gate way city. That had to be done, and most likely was, and then the aircraft is released by the lead in the logbook where the flight crew should have seen it. As a lead, i did not know which A/C were ETOPS, just that our workload would have included it, so it could have been done on that A/C without the mechanics not knowing if the A/C was ETOPS. There is not extra fire bottles, there might be a extra liferaft on board, but the slides are also rafts. Main thing is oil consumtion, and the APU must work so they have 3 generators. If all of this was done, then there really was no harm to the passengers, as the A/C was safe. Biggest thing is you can not have work done on both engines, or have any MEL’s on certain items. They are sometimes marked in the logbook, but everyone assumes it is the right A/C, it would be scheduling which screwed up.

  36. Aircraft can still communicate using the HF radio once out of the VHF coverage area. Similar to what happens with a/c crossing the Atlantic

  37. Blame, blame, blame, screwed up is all that I am seeing written here. Not one person ever goes to work thinking, ya know what I am gonna screw up big time today, just because..
    I have been in aviation 34 years, first as an engineer, and now a 777 Captain, for a NON US operator. Most people who work in aviation are professionals, who do long courses and spend lots of money investing in their careers. We all admit to making mistakes, everyone does, it is just that systems, or procedures need to be in place to catch or trap these errors. This to me is a systemic issue, that AA have and need to address.
    It is ONLY US companies weirdly that have ETOPS painted on the nose gear doors, foreign airlines do not, but somehow seem to manage OK.
    If I am on an ETOPS flight for me the first heads up is, its on the paper flight plan. Then before I sign off the tech log I check for any ADD’s or MEL defects that affect an ETOPS sector. Once that is done I check to see that the engineer has signed the ETOPS check. All our twin engined aircraft are ETOPS, some 180 and some 207 minutes.
    Blame culture is a culture of the past, and has no place in aviation.

  38. Steve Case, this flight was operate under 14 CFR 121, as such the operator/dispatcher share joint responsibility for the flight with the PIC. Assigning blame simply to PIC for a system failure is inaccurate at best.

  39. @Keith
    Well said, I agree with everything that you said. Let’s for sake of agreement change the word “blame” to “responsibilty”. Your check in process is detailed and should confirm if you are flying the correct aircraft. So let’s say there are multiple points of responsibility but the PIC is ultimately responsible for all souls on board.

  40. @Mark
    I understand that airlines operating in the US have to comply with 14 CFR part 121 and FAR part 91. I didn’t say that others didn’t fail besides the PIC.

    Let’s for sake of agreement change the word “blame” to “responsibility”. So let’s say there are multiple points of responsibility but the PIC is ultimately responsible for all souls on board. There were multiple points of failure but the PIC is ultimately responsible:

    The pilot in command (PIC) of an aircraft is the person aboard the aircraft who is ultimately responsible for its operation and safety during flight. This would be the “captain” in a typical two- or three-pilot aircrew, or “pilot” if there is only one certified and qualified pilot at the controls of an aircraft. The PIC must be legally certified (or otherwise authorized) to operate the aircraft for the specific flight and flight conditions, but need not be actually manipulating the controls at any given moment. The PIC is the person legally in charge of the aircraft and its flight safety and operation, and would normally be the primary person liable for an infraction of any flight rule.

    The U.S. CFR Title 14, Part 121, defines “pilot in command” as:

    …the person who:

    Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight;
    Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and
    Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

    14 CFR 121.533 says

    (d) Each pilot in command of an aircraft is, during flight time, in command of the aircraft and crew and is responsible for the safety of the passengers, crewmembers, cargo, and airplane.
    (e) Each pilot in command has full control and authority in the operation of the aircraft, without limitation, over other crewmembers and their duties during flight time, whether or not he holds valid certificates authorizing him to perform the duties of those crewmembers.

    Under U.S. FAA FAR 91.3, “Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command”, the FAA declares:[4]

    The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.
    In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
    Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

    The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) also defines the PIC as having ultimate responsibility for the operation of a flight.

  41. No it isn’t only US based carriers. I work at YVR on the ground and see it on the nose gear doors of many airlines.

  42. The Pilots should bear some of the blame. As ETOPS aircraft have ETOPS written on the outside of the aircraft

  43. There is only one place where ultimate blame or responsibility belongs in an organization such as an airline, and that is at the top. Discussing culture and the obvious responsibility of the PIC is missing the big picture. Insuring that adequate training and procedures exist and work are ultimately the responsibility of the CEO. The CEO will determine the meaning of “adequate”, and that will determine the success of failure of those procedures. Of course, most management takes this as a tough pill to swallow and will generally promise to “get to the bottom of it” whenever problems surface. That can be translated as Sh** Rolling Downhill.
    This won’t be fixed by any FAA or NTSB investigation. Don’t hold your breath.

  44. Maybe one of those great folks in AA Press and Public Relations, who for sure have seen this blog, would like to comment ………..

  45. @candace warner, you really have to make sure that you have read carefully and fully understand the posts to which you are replying before you begin to correct what you perceive to be errors, and certainly before you all but call someone a liar: Look again, and you will see that @Jonathan E was not trying to gin up a lawsuit but was speaking of liability issues that *would’ve* come into play IF there had been an accident: “Aside from liability for any loss of life *had* the [p]lane gone down . . . AA’s damages *would’ve* enhanced for such gross and unforgivable negligence” (my emphasis).

    Furthermore, @pavel did not “denegrate” (I assume you meant “denigrate”?) the AA FA by claiming there “was no safety demonstration”; those are your words. Pavel wrote that they did “neglected to play the safety video,” did not “verbally confirm” the responsibilities of those passengers sitting in the emergency exit rows, and failed to “do a seatbelt/tray table/etc check before takeoff and landing.” As an attorney, you must surely appreciate the important differences between what was actually written and what you reported was written. For the sake of your clients (in either of those two states), you might heed the advice you gave Jonathan in the last two sentences of your post; you are so right: self-importance does *not* look good; oddly enough, it also frequently seems to invite error.

    BTW, I’ll be amazed if you reply to me, absolutely floored if any such reply goes beyond commenting on some grammatical and/or spelling error I’ve let slide by, and thrilled to apologize if you prove me wrong.

  46. I believe everyone from scheduler down to the mechanic would be investigated by the FAA. Scheduling has to choose an available aircraft that is ETOPS certified. It goes to the gate, maintenance has to check it for airworthiness. On a trip to Hawaii there should have been an ETOPS inspection. If that was left out on the check list the maintenance would be not have looked.. The pilot does his walk-around and knows his or her route. On the nose landing gear door is the letters ETOPS. If that is missing then the plane should not go. Having the wrong aircraft delivered to the gate is not something that happens, so the pilot was more considered about the condition of the aircraft. In the cockpit are the words ETOPS where the pilot and FO can see it. Bottom line the FAA can may give fines to the Pilot and Mechanic but I garuentee the company will get fined and there will be some extra training for everyone.

  47. I’ll never forget as a gate agent in Portland, Ore. meeting the inbound flight from Minneapolis/St.Paul enroute to Honolulu. As the 757-300 rolled into the gate, from the jetbridge, I was in shock NOT to see the ETOPS placard on the nose wheel landing doors. I called dispatch immediately and subsequently an ETOPS qualified 757-300 was ferried in from Seattle to continue its journey from PDX to HNL.

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