Fligth UA954 on 25th February was diverted to IAH when in flight from SFO to TLV.

Passengers were updated and told that the plane had a technical issue that was preventing it from crossing the ocean.

According to flightaware the plane was close to the border between Wyoming and Montana. It continued flying and landed in IAH.

What was the reason for the flight not being able to continue flight over the ocean, but still allowing it to continue flying safely for around 4 hours?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking about this particular flight or in general? If the latter, then it's too broad. It would be a long (and incomplete) list of reasons. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Feb 26, 2017 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like something to do with ETOPS (not crossing the ocean) and putting the passengers on another flight (diverting to IAH). $\endgroup$ Feb 26, 2017 at 14:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @mins, and likely either have a spare plane there or at least enough other flights to rebook the passengers to. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Feb 27, 2017 at 5:58

2 Answers 2


They told ATC they had an unknown odor in the cockpit. When ATC asked for more detail they said they had narrowed it down to the cockpit heating element. They specifically said they were not declaring an emergency.

It just happened to have occurred while they were within range of the LiveATC receiver so the transaction is on the recording (normally you can only hear ATC on the en route feeds). The recording is here. After ATC tries to raise them several times they check in at about 17:22 on the recording and tell ATC about the odor and need to divert. About 5 min later, I presume after conferring with the company, they tell ATC they are not declaring emergency but they're diverting to IAH. When asked for further details the say it's the cockpit heating element. After a few more exchanges with ATC they fly out of range of the LiveATC receiver.

Here's my transcript.

Times are per the recording (MM:SS). The recording starts at 0630Z so add that to the times listed for UTC

16:15 [ATC] United 954 change to my frequency if you're not there, 127.75

16:28 [ATC] United 954 Salt Lake

16:38 [ATC] United 954 Salt Lake Center

17:10 [ATC] United 954 Salt Lake Center

17:23 [UA954] Salt Lake united 954 checking in 350

17:27 [ATC] United 954 Salt Lake Center, roger. Welcome

17:30 [UA954] Yeah, it looks like we've got some unknown odor in the airplane. Were gonna - were either gonna go to Houston or San Fran. I'll get right back with you.

17:40 [ATC] United 954 thank you

21:54 [UA954] Salt Lake 954

22:13 [UA954] Salt Lake 954

22:16 [ATC] 954 go ahead

22:20 [UA954] Yeah, we are not, I repeat, not declaring emergency. We just need to turn to Houston for an unknown odor in the cockpit.

22:27 [ATC] United 954 roger, clear to Houston airport via direct. Maintain FL350

22:36 [UA954] Ok, 350 direct to houston, thank you. United 954

22:52 [ATC] United 954 I just want to confirm that's India Alfa Hotel. Is that what you're showing?

22:57 [UA954] India Alfa Hotel, affirmative

23:00 [ATC] 954 roger, thanks

23:07 [ATC] United 954 they're gonna want to know maybe a little bit more details. Is there something else maybe you can tell me about the odor so I can pass that along?

23:17 [UA954] Stand by

23:23 [UA954] Yeah, we've narrowed it down to the cockpit heating element is, we believe, the source of the smell. But that's the best we can deduce at this point.

23:34 [ATC] United 954 roger, thank you.

There are a few further routing exchanges before 954 flies out of range.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you happen to have ATC transcript or anything for that? $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Feb 27, 2017 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @vasin1987 I'll add a link to the LiveATC recording $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Feb 27, 2017 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ So the times listed are MM:SS into the recording you linked to, not HH:MM, correct? That makes the first line at 06:46:15Z, right? took a while to figure out why UA954 took an hour to respond to ATC... $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Feb 27, 2017 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, sorry. Yes, the recording is 30 min. Long, so its minutes:seconds. I'm trying to figure out why the colons didn't copy with the rest of the text. Very weird. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Feb 27, 2017 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan do the colons make it less ambiguous or do I need to add 00:16:15, etc.? $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Feb 27, 2017 at 20:14

As mins linked in comments, the flight diverted due to a smell of smoke. Diverting to Houston was likely done to get better maintenance facilities or for availability of a replacement aircraft if needed. Houston also left them closer to Tel Aviv (11.5 hours) than returning to San Francisco (13-13.5 hours). Houston is United's second largest hub behind Chicago, and O'Hare is much busier and doesn't appear to have 787 service with United.

The flight had been in the air for about 1.5 hours when they diverted. It took 3.5 hours to divert, but it would have taken 11.5 hours to reach Tel Aviv. Even if the pilots thought they had narrowed down the cause, it's safer to divert. Fires in flight can spread rapidly. If the conditions had worsened during the diversion, there would have been closer airports to divert to than if they had continued over the North Atlantic. It's possible that ETOPS rules also prevented them from crossing the Atlantic.


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