A Lesson in Why Air Traffic Control and Humor Don't Mix

An air traffic controller in Atlanta may have joked himself out of a job last week after telling the flight crew of a Delta flight to “go around” as they were preparing to land at the world’s busiest airport.

“We do not have a gate yet so you might want to figure out some place for us to park while we float about,” a pilot on Delta Flight 630 told the controller on Wednesday evening as he was preparing to land following a 90-minute flight from Detroit. “Delta 630, go around,” the tower controller immediately responded, according to a recording posted at Liveatc.net, which streams U.S. air traffic control communications. “I’m kidding.”

Kidding or not, the Boeing 777 crew had already aborted its landing and was ascending. “Delta 630, you’re cleared to land on 27 Left,” the controller said, repeating his earlier clearance after realizing that the plane was no longer descending.

When a commercial pilot hears an air traffic controller command to “go around” as he’s about to land, the landing will be aborted—even if it was meant as a joke. There are no questions asked or clarifications sought, given the safety considerations. The controller directed the plane to 4,000 feet and told the pilot to turn; the flight landed 10 minutes later.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the matter. “The controller who handled the flight is restricted from controlling air traffic until the FAA review is complete,” spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said today in an e-mail. The flight originated in Manila and flew to Nagoya, Japan, before continuing to Detroit.

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