American Airlines Pilot Gets Petty Over Radio Phraseology Reprimand


At the time of writing this story, there were at least 17,500 active flights being tracked on sites like FlightAware, FlightRadar24 and ADS-B Exchange. The figure might even be closer to 18,000 given that these ground trackers do not pick up all military operations, some private flights, or flights with older Automatic Dependent Surveillance equipment.

To help air traffic controllers identify aircraft, each flight uses a unique radio call sign, whether is be the registration of the aircraft or compound phrase such as the airline call sign and flight number combined. In the case below, we look at a recent interaction between the pilots of American Airlines flight 1479 and the Approach controller in Phoenix’s airspace. The American Airlines crew in this case used the call sign “American 1479”.

Communication breaks down between pilot and controller

In a clip captured by VASAviation, the pilots of the American Airlines flight from El Paso (ELP) to Phoenix (PHX) make first contact with the Phoenix Approach controller. The Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) staff is responsible for filtering flights from the higher altitude en route airspace to the respective airports under their control.

The American Airlines pilot is initially told to “expect” runway 25 Left, to which they respond “25 Left”. The controller then offers the pilots runway 26 instead (as it’s a shorter taxi to the American Airlines gates on the northern side of the airport), to which the pilots respond “we will take 26!”.

As part of the pilot’s responsibility when responding to the controller, they always have to include their call sign in their transmission. This is so that the controller knows the correct pilot received the given instructions. Unfortunately the pilot on this flight did not think that this was important, resulting in communication breakdown between them and the controller.

Here is a snippet of the conversation. I labeled the offending pilot as “Pilot 1” and the co-pilot as “Pilot 2”.

Pilot 1: “Phoenix approach, good evening, American 1479, with you.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, Phoenix approach, expect 25L.”
Pilot 1: “25L.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, 26 available tonight, if you’d like.”
Pilot 1: “We will take 26!”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, verify that’s you.”
Pilot 1: “That is American 1479, sorry. We will take 26.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, expect 26, fly present heading, maintain 5,000.”
Pilot 1: “Present heading, 5,000, expect 26.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, if you could fill the call sign again. Fly present heading, maintain 5,000.”

Pilot 2: “Alright American 1479. Present heading, 5,000, we will expect 26.”
Phoenix Approach: “Thank you.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, Sky Harbor’s 10 o’clock, 14 miles. Advise when you get it in sight. Lower in just a minute.”
Pilot 2: “Alright it’s in sight, American 1479.”

Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, turn left heading 290, intercept the 26 localizer, maintain 4000.”
Pilot 1: “290 on the heading, maintain 4000, intercept 26 localizer, American 1-4-7-9”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, cleared visual approach runway 26.”
Pilot 1: “Cleared for the visual approach, American 1-4-7-9.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, cleared visual approach runway 26.”
Pilot 1: “Uh, we got a communication problem. Are you hearing this radio clear? Because I’m saying what I need to say but something’s not happening.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, you said ‘cleared for the approach,’ I need the runway assignment, which is runway 26, not 25L or 25R. You’re cleared visual approach runway 26, and you’re not reading that back correctly.”
Pilot 1: “Cleared for the visual approach to runway 26, American 1479.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, if you need a phone number, you can call in and we can talk about the case, but you misread the last three transmissions without a call sign and without a runway assignment.”
Phoenix Approach: “American 1479, you need a phone number?”
Pilot 1: “I am not gonna waste my time.”

Throughout their interaction, the American pilot clearly omits his call sign multiple times even after the controller asks him repeatedly to confirm it. He even read back their runway approach clearance without confirming the runway number. The pilot very bothered by this, intentionally read back their flight number slowly and separated all the numbers as his own form of retaliation. (Number are usually compounded in FAA airspace.)

After being handed off to the tower controller, the pilot continued his petty behavior, angrily reading back clearances with separated numbers in the call sign.

Pilot 1: “Phoenix tower, American 1-4-7-9, visual, runway 26.”
Phoenix Tower: “American 1479, Phoenix tower, runway 26, cleared to land.”
Pilot 1: “Cleared to land runway 26, American 1-4-7-9.”
Phoenix Tower: “Are you okay? You seem very hostile.”

During the taxi, the second pilot takes over communications with the tower controller. After they receive their taxi instructions to the gate, they then get a number to call for a “possible pilot deviation”. Check out the video below for the full interaction.


What went wrong?

It’s unclear why the pilot in question took so many shortcuts with his phraseology. Maybe he had a very long day, or were dealing with prior matter that set the wrong mood.

It is also unclear why he would react so negatively after being reprimanded over an issue that is ATC 101. Maybe he truly believed he was doing no wrong?

The importance of a proper read back

Regardless of what goes on in the flight deck, it is imperative that pilots and controllers give clear instructions with proper references. In this case, the pilot failed to include his call sign in read backs, and did not read back the assigned runway number when he was given the approval for the visual approach.

The pilots need to read back their respective call signs so that the controller knows that their instructions are acknowledged by the correct pilot. It’s never safe to assume otherwise as there are numerous instances of pilots of other nearby aircraft accidentally reading back instructions not given to them. This sometimes happens when there are similar sounding call signs in busy airspaces.

As for runway assignments, Phoenix Sky Harbor has three runways, and controllers have to ensure that pilots are set up for the one assigned to them. Saying “cleared for the visual approach” means nothing as they could have accidentally set up for 25 Right or 25 Left instead of 26.

Regardless of whether or not this pilot was having a bad day, it is still no excuse for him to get lazy with his phraseology and then try to pass off the blame to something unrelated.

[Featured Photo: Colin Brown/Flickr (CC BY 2.0 Deed) ]

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