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July 06, 2017

Aviation Twitter was aflame over the weekend after a passenger aboard a flight landing at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport accused the pilot of flying drunk.

The accusation was founded solely on the fact that the pilot circled around above the airport before landing. However, as many Twitter users were quick to point out, this is a completely normal maneuver — a safety precaution that keeps everyone in the sky safe.

New York City is unique in that it has three major airports within 10 miles of each other,” Phil Derner, founder of NYCAviation.com, told Travel + Leisure. “I like to call this the Bermuda Triangle of airports. It’s a complex, tight airspace.”

Not only do planes landing at JFK, Newark, or LaGuardia have to navigate around each other, they must also contend with weather conditions.

“How pilots approach an airport can change based on the weather, volume of traffic, and the specific runway the airport is using that day,” Derner told T+L.

The approach pattern on this particular day for the runway JFK was using at the time necessitated flying past the airport, over Long Island and the ocean, and re-approaching from the East.

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The incident involved a “go-around” or aborted landing — which sounds a lot scarier than it actually is. A go-around is basically whenever a pilot or air traffic control decides that conditions are not prime for a perfect landing. The pilot will pull back up and make another attempt.

“Although it can be surprising for a passenger to hear the engines change, it’s actually a display of safety,” Derner said. “It happens every day at every airport.”

Although the approach was a completely normal and safe one, Derner said he could understand why an unaware passenger might freak out.

“Air travel is stressful, especially after dealing with delays and security lines,” he said. “But because the industry is so complex and so misunderstood, people assume things that aren’t true. Your brain is supposed to respond in fear when you don’t understand something.”

However there’s only one way to deal with fear of the unknown: Education.

Nervous fliers can download apps like SkyGuru, which will keep them updated of weather conditions and explain why the pilot may make certain decisions. Or, Derner says, reach out to a member of the aviation community (you can find them on Twitter #AVGeek) to ask a question.

“When people have questions, they can always ask,” he said. “The AV community is here to help and share our passion.”

So if on a future flight, the pilot appears to circle the airport several times (or even attempt several different landings) rest assured they are not drunk. They are adhering to strict safety regulations to keep airspace safe for everyone.

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