An American Airlines Boeing 737 operating a flight From Dallas, Texas, to El Salvador, was reportedly denied an emergency landing due to communication issues. Sources suggest the aircraft requested an emergency landing in Costa Rica due to a fuel emergency but was told the airport was closed.

An American Airlines Boeing 737-800 was denied an emergency landing due to a communication error. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

The American Airlines Boeing 737-823, registration N937NN, was operating flight AA517 from Dallas, Texas, to San Salvador airport in El Salvador. Qcostarica cites Álvaro Vargas, director of Civil Aviation in Costa Rica as saying the aircraft requested an emergency landing at the Daniel Oduber Quirós Airport in Liberia, Costa Rica, at around 23:50 local time.

The airport’s control tower staff informed the flight that the airport was closed and a landing would not be possible. Denying an emergency landing is very unusual. However, it looks as if the staff at the airport were following the correct procedure. They were reportedly not made aware that the aircraft was requesting an emergency landing until afterward.

Staff in the Air Traffic Control Tower in Costa Rica were not made aware the request was an emergency. Photo: American Airlines

Who contacted whom?

According to local media outlet qcostarica.com, the air traffic control tower was not in direct contact with the aircraft. The information came via the Center for Air Traffic Control CENAMER, which covers the Central American FIR airspace above 20,000ft. Below 20,000ft, the airspace is controlled by air traffic controllers in each country, meaning the staff who denied the landing were within their rights to do so.

According to the aviation authority in Costa Rica, CENAMER did not communicate the urgent nature of the request. CENAMER is investigating why crucial information was withheld.

American Airlines told Simple Flying,

“On June 26, American Airlines Flight 517 from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to San Salvador (SAL) diverted to Guatemala City (GUA) due to weather in San Salvador. The flight declared an emergency and received authorization to land at GUA. The aircraft, a Boeing 737-800, landed safely at GUA at 1:01 a.m. on June 27, re-departed at 06:07am and arrived at SAL at 07:43am.”

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What happened to the aircraft?

While unconfirmed, It seems as though the flight did initially approach El Salvador International Airport, with a landing aborted at 300 feet according to data from RadarBox.com. The aircraft then climbed out of the vicinity of the airport, heading in the direction of Costa Rica. Qcostarica suggests that the landing attempt was abandoned due to weather in the area.

It seems as though the aircraft went to divert to Costa Rica, 405 miles away. When it became clear that the airport was apparently unable to accept the plane, it then turned to Guatemala City. While Costa Rica is further away, it could be preferred by the airline due to other connections or local contracts. Aircraft always carry enough fuel to divert, but the additional diversion to Guatemala could have caused the aircraft to eat into its reserves.

The aircraft requested an emergency landing well beyond its original destination. Liberia, Costa Rica is in the bottom-right corner. Image: Radarbox.com

In situations with low fuel, pilots have two options; minimum fuel or fuel emergency. Minimum fuel happens when an aircraft has enough fuel to complete its current route but cannot experience delays or diversions. A fuel emergency is communicated using a MAYDAY alert and may require an emergency landing. It’s not usual to request an emergency landing further away from the current destination.

Whatever the reason, it’s lucky, no one was hurt.  Hopefully, the ongoing investigation will prevent this from happening again.

What do you think went wrong here? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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