Delta Air Lines pilots who threw fuel on primary school yards and neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles on Tuesday did not inform air traffic control before doing so and failed to dispose of the fuel at an adequate altitude, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)) he said.
The agency said Wednesday that dumping the fuel at an optimum altitude would have allowed it to “spray properly” before it was thrown onto dozens of people on the ground. Air traffic controllers generally direct aircraft to the appropriate areas to get rid of the fuel.
“The FAA continues to investigate the circumstances behind this incident,” the agency said.
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More than 50 people were treated for skin and eye irritation after the Delta Delta flight to Shanghai released the fuel while returning to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) shortly after takeoff due to a mechanical problem. Pilots threw fuel to reach a safe landing weight, the airline said in a statement.
Dozens of people on the ground were shocked but no injuries were reported, said the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The Boeing 777-200 landed safely at the airport.
The FAA said its procedures require that fuel be thrown over designated depopulated areas, typically at higher altitudes, so it disperses before reaching the ground. According to the recorded radio communications, the air traffic control asked the Delta crew if they wanted to return to LAX immediately or stay on the ocean “to retain and burn fuel.”
“We will move on,” replied the pilot or co-pilot. “We have it under control again. … We are not critical.”
“Well, then you don’t need to hold or unload fuel or something?” The driver asked.
“Ah, negative,” was the answer. But the plane threw fuel anyway.
“I know there are many questions about the process that followed and that kind of thing,” said Dana Debel, managing director of government affairs for Delta, during a press conference on Wednesday. “There is an ongoing investigation that opened immediately after the flight landed back.”
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The airline sent 13 cleaning teams to work with the Los Angeles Unified School District on Wednesday to clean outside areas of schools affected by the incident, it said in a statement.
The schools remained open.
Associated Press contributed to this report.