Delta ‘go-around’ goes viral, prompts FAA probe


ATLANTA — An air traffic controller is on restricted duty following an incident that caused a Delta Air Lines jet to abandon a landing approach at the Atlanta airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the “go-around,” which some media reports characterized as the result of a joke by the controller.

Delta Air Lines flight 630 from Detroit was on final approach last week to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when, with the Boeing 777 about 1,000 feet off the ground, there was discussion of where the plane would park after landing.

“We do not have a gate yet so you might want to figure out some place for us to park while we sort it out,” the pilot told the controller, according to an audio clip on LiveATC.net.

The controller replied, “Delta 630, go around,” then after a short pause added, “I’m kidding, Delta 630,” and told the pilot he would find a place where the plane could wait for an open gate. The controller then reiterated “Delta 630 … you’re cleared to land.”

The pilot responded that he had already initiated the missed approach procedure and said the big jet was “on the go.”

The pilot and controller then communicated routinely as the 777 climbed to 4,000 feet, where it circled once and then landed without incident about 15 minutes later. A Delta spokesman said no customer concerns were reported.

The controller’s use of the term “I’m kidding” prompted news reports to suggest he’d been joking when he first issued the go-around, and the story went viral on the Internet. But the FAA offered no theory as to whether the controller was being flippant, changed his mind about whether the go-around was needed, or simply misspoke.

Go-arounds are safety procedures triggered by a variety of factors, ranging from weather to taxiing planes being too close to the runway being used. The procedure is “very common,” said Phil Derner, founder of aviation enthusiast website NYCaviation and a flight dispatcher. He said there might be several go-arounds in one day at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, for instance.

He said if a pilot is told to go around for any reason — even if the controller was mistaken or meant it in jest — “the pilot would kind of have to react” by adding speed and starting a climb. “Takeoff and landing are the most critical parts of a flight, they’re the ones that are most prone to a safety issue.”

National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi said in a written statement that the incident “never should have happened.”

“The behavior of the individual involved was completely inappropriate and unacceptable. He has since apologized to the airline and his colleagues,” Rinaldi said. “We are cooperating with the FAA on its investigation into this situation and will work internally to ensure this behavior is not repeated.”

Derner said controllers follow procedures for speaking on the radio. “When you veer away from that, it can be very flat-out dangerous,” Derner said. Executing a go-around also burns extra fuel, which can be costly.