Delta jet dumped fuel over Los Angeles without warning, FAA says

A Delta Air Lines jet empties its fuel tanks as it makes an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, seen from Whittier, California, on Jan 14, 2020.
A Delta Air Lines jet empties its fuel tanks as it makes an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, seen from Whittier, California, on Jan 14, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (BLOOMBERG) - The crew of a Delta Air Lines flight that experienced engine trouble shortly after taking off from Los Angeles failed to notify air traffic controllers before they dumped fuel over a densely populated area that included several elementary schools, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

While there is no regulation requiring such notice, it is common practice so that flight controllers can direct the plane to an appropriate area to drop the fuel, the FAA said in an e-mail on Wednesday (Jan 15). The discharge from the Delta jet sickened 67 children and adults, although none was hospitalised.

"A review of yesterday's air traffic control communications shows the Delta Flight 89 crew did not tell air traffic control that they needed to dump fuel," said the US regulator. "In this emergency situation, the fuel-dumping procedure did not occur at an optimal altitude that would have allowed the fuel to atomise properly."

Fuel jettisoned higher than 5,000 to 6,000 feet will vaporise before hitting the ground, according to Boeing. The altitude of the Delta plane when it dropped the fuel has not been disclosed.

The Boeing 777-200 suffered an engine compressor stall after leaving Los Angeles International Airport for Shanghai, and the pilots notified air traffic control that the aircraft would need to return to the airport. The FAA continues to investigate the incident.

Delta said it helped clean up the fuel at the schools, but declined to comment on the FAA statement or any aspect of the probe.

While it's unclear how serious the emergency on the Delta flight was, pilots have discretion to ignore some FAA rules while faced with a dangerous situation. The crew members told controllers their situation was "not critical", according to a recording posted by LiveATC.net.

Jetliners dump fuel in an emergency to lower their weight for landing. While the plane was capable of taking off, its weight with a full fuel load would have made it heavier than optimal for landing. Landing at higher weights causes stress on brakes and tyres that can trigger fires or other issues.

The Delta plane, which was carrying 149 passengers and 15 crew members, landed safely. The fuel release "was required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight", the airline said in a statement late on Tuesday.

Delta said it "shares concerns regarding reports of minor injuries to adults and children at schools in the area".

A Russian cargo carrier, Volga-Dnepr Airlines, requested a regulatory exemption on Wednesday to fly a replacement engine for Delta from Minneapolis to Los Angeles aboard its massive Antonov An-124 jet "to respond to an emergency created by unusual circumstances not arising in the normal course of business". Non-US airlines wishing to operate intra-US flights generally need exemptions from US regulators. 

In its application with the Department of Transportation, Volga-Dnepr added that "no US carrier operates aircraft that are able to transport" the enormous Rolls-Royce Trent 800-series engine. If approved, the flight will occur on Friday.