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A few days ago more than one news outlet reported a mayday call made by United Airlines flight 839 inbound to Sydney, Australia from Los Angeles, California, operated by a Boeing 787.

Sound alarming? It probably does at first glace. But was the mayday call really a call for concern?

Yes, it was a mayday call. No, it’s not alarming

The mayday call made by United Airlines flight was prompted by a dip in fuel reserves, following proper procedure. Was the plane actually running out of fuel and about to fall out of the sky? Not at all. The Dreamliner was simply down to its fuel reserve, and the “mayday” call is a precaution meant for the safety of everyone on the flight. Air traffic control will get you to the ground as quickly as possible. This was not at all the sort of mayday call that means the flight is in imminent danger.

The flight deck didn’t even alert the 239 passengers to the situation. Passengers were greeted by emergency vehicles when they landed in Sydney, but had no idea what the occasion was. The airport was on high alert. Following proper safety procedure, roads around Sydney Kingsford-Smith was shut down temporarily until UA 839 was on the ground.

Blown out of proportion by the news

The mayday call was an exciting news item for numerous outlets. Maybe it was a slow news day.

I follow Scott Bateman, a Boeing 747 first officer, on Twitter, and he is one of my favorite follows of late. As soon as I saw the news, I knew it wouldn’t take long for him to provide some commentary. Not only did he confirm that the mayday call wasn’t any real cause for alarm, he even nailed the potential reason the Boeing 787 was so low on fuel: the flight spent a longer time at a lower altitude before they finally got to their cruising altitude, burning through fuel at a much faster rate earlier in the flight.


Could the flight have diverted? Undoubtedly. I’m sure the flight deck knew fairly early that fuel burn was above what was expected and that things would be tight. Diverting to Hawaii early on, or Noumea or Brisbane later, were certainly options. Yet they continued on to Sydney. I’m sure the pilots knew they would make it just fine.

While the mayday call might seem concerning, it is really just another safety procedure that has been put in place. The call made by the flight deck of UA 839 had the desired outcome. Emergency response was on hand, and the flight landed without incident. It was another routine and safe day in the sky.

Featured image courtesy of lasta29 via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons under CC 2.0 license

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