Angry United Pilot Calls SFO ATC Over Go Arounds

As an aviation geek, I spend a lot of my free time tracking flights on Flightradar24, listening to the air traffic control ping. Along those lines, here’s an interesting exchange between a United Airlines pilot and an air traffic controller. We sometimes hear air traffic controllers getting impatient with pilots, but in this case it’s the other way around…

United Boeing 737 has two planes at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) due to traffic

VASAviation does a great job of posting videos to YouTube with interesting air traffic control audio, as well as a visualization of what happened. An interaction I find particularly interesting was the pilot being enraged after having to perform two (possibly unnecessary) runs.

This incident occurred on May 12, 2023, and relates to United Airlines Flight UA1390 from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco (SFO). The flight was operated by an approximately 14-year-old Boeing 737-900 with registration code N75428.

The aircraft has been cleared to land on runway 28L. Shortly thereafter, as the 737 was on its final four-mile route, the air traffic controller cleared another USS plane to line up on the runway and wait. That plane had to wait for another plane to clear the runway before it could take off, and at this point the 737 was on a final route of less than two miles.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough spacing at the end, so the 737 had to spin. Well, fair enough, it does happen sometimes. Air traffic controllers have challenging jobs and there is a great deal of variance, so the spacing won’t always be quite right.

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Then, the United 737 began its second approach to runway 28L, and essentially the same thing happened. The plane was cleared to land, then another plane was told to line up on the runway and wait, then another plane had to clear the runway. There wasn’t enough spacing at the end, so the 737 had to spin… again.

United pilot allows air traffic controllers to have it

After having to go around a second time for the same reason, the United pilot ordered the tower controller, saying, “You ought to do better than this, twice that.” The tower controller responds with “OK, talk to NorCal about that”. In other words, the tower controller blames it on the approach frequency, even though the tower controller is evacuating the departing aircraft to taxi on the runway.

When the pilot then speaks to NorCal’s departure, here’s how it goes:

Pilot: “What’s going on, that twice?”
Controller: “I’m not sure.”
Pilot: “It’s unacceptable, come on, okay, let’s not do this again.”
Superintendent: “We don’t work in the tower, sir.”
Pilot: They told me to talk to you.

Then when the beta program switches over to NorCal’s approach, here’s how:

Pilot: “Can we make sure no one is put on the runway anymore?”
Controller: “We’re wondering the same thing, we’ve got a few here, and we’ll make sure you get there this time.”
Pilot: “Yeah, definitely make a report on this, that’s unacceptable.”
Controller: “We agree with you 100%, sorry about that.”
Pilot: “Thanks. I know it’s not your fault, but unfortunately you’re the only one I have to vent about. He told me to talk to you guys, that’s the funny part.”
Controller: “That’s great. Planes on the ground seem to have priority over planes in the air. Again, just FYI, we’ve had issues with the tower here for a while as far as some of these things go around, things like that, but I think it’s More appropriate for an official report because now we hear they are trying to blame us for our speeds, but I don’t know what we did wrong.”
Pilot: “Yeah, I’ll fill one for sure. I mean, that’s unacceptable, two go to solve the same problem, something has to happen with that.”
Controller: “I agree with you 100%.”

On the third attempt, the United 737 finally landed, about 30 minutes late from the two trucks taking off.

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There are some interesting air traffic control sounds of a United 737 going through two flights at San Francisco Airport. Both directions were due to lack of spacing, and in both cases it was due to the aircraft being cleared to taxi on the runway for takeoff, but there was not enough separation.

I understand, of course, that air traffic controllers are overworked and under a lot of pressure to avoid delays, and they also can’t quite predict how long it will take for planes to clear the runway, start a takeoff run, etc.

At the same time, from a pilot’s perspective, I can also appreciate the frustration of having two unnecessary runs in a row for the exact same reason. Interestingly, the tower controller then blames NorCal, but the NorCal controller is 100% compatible with the pilot.

What do you think of this interaction between the American pilot and the air traffic controller?

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