United Flight to Sydney Nearly Runs Out of Fuel

by John Harper

Major news outlets chirped with news last night about United Flight 839, which issued a mayday call on approach to Sydney International Airport Thursday morning due to low fuel.

Emergency response recordings obtained by Australian news outlets indicate the flight, from Los Angeles to Sydney, was running low on fuel. In full-on Aussie fashion, extra preparations were made for an emergency landing, essentially shutting down the airport. None of that appeared necessary in hindsight.

United Boeing 787-9 Los Angeles Singapore

A United 787-9 Dreamliner, used to operate the Los Angeles to Sydney flight.

But the incident was a rather unusual case of a major transpacific flight dipping into fuel reserves under normal operating conditions. The US 839 flight was neither rerouted after departing Los Angeles Tuesday, nor significantly delayed, which begs a likely-to-remain unanswered question: why was a United Boeing 787 running low on fuel over the Pacific Ocean?

United low fuel mayday Syndey Australia

The flight path and arrival details of Tuesday’s UA 839 departure. Screenshot of Flightaware.com

The mayday call was the standard operating procedure for a situation in which a commercial jet has less than 30 minutes of fuel onboard prior to landing, a Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesman told The Australian Financial Review.

United is mum on details and issued a generic, confusing response and alluded to a “mechanical issue”:

“The aircraft taxied to the gate and all customers disembarked normally. We continue to investigate the matter.”

Passengers onboard the Dreamliner remained blissfully unaware of the problem — until Australian television news crews met them upon disembarking. Lovely.

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