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The Vueling flight VY2119 Barcelona-Malaga yesterday (see flightradar) got diverted 50 min into the flight. The nearest airport then was Valencia, but they chose to turn around and fly all the way back to the origin airport, even flying by another airport, Tarragona. Indeed, the whole flight takes regularly 1h40, they could well have flown all the way to Malaga and would have spent the same amount of time in the air.

Why have they chosen to fly back? Wouldn't an emergency require landing in the nearest airport?

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    $\begingroup$ There's that time a British Airways 747 for London had a single engine failure at takeoff at LAX. They diverted to Manchester. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 9 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Moo The FAA apparently disagreed and fined them $25,000 for flying the aircraft in an unairworthy condition. I don't think range was so much the issue as that they flew across the Atlantic Ocean with a failed engine. You can't divert at just any point when you're flying over rural Canada, the Atlantic (or Arctic, as the case may be,) or Greenland. Diversion options are few and far between. $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 10 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab no, the FAA imposed the fine, BA appealed and the FAA dropped the case. Given than the CAA found no issue with the pilots decision here, indeed citing in the report "As a 4-engined aircraft the B747 is designed and certificated to tolerate the loss of a second engine following an initial IFSD, without losing essential systems or necessary performance capabilities" and also "Thus, no evidence was found to show that the flight continuation posed a significant increase in risk" I think the pilots did just fine. $\endgroup$ – Moo Feb 10 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Moo Personally, I would consider pointing out the case being dropped when it was only dropped due to a question of jurisdiction to be more picking nits, but we can agree to disagree. Personally, I would consider any in-flight engine failure to be an emergency, at least on an airliner. $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 10 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab but it wasnt just dropped due to a question of jurisdiction, there was a question of ambiguity in the rules. From the WSJ: "British Airways said even if U.S. rules applied, they were ambiguous. The U.S. rules require pilots who lose an engine to land at the nearest suitable airport, but, British Airways noted, they make an exception for four-engine aircraft if the pilot decides flying onward is "just as safe as landing at the nearest suitable airport."". The pilots chose to continue and the FAA chose to have an issue with that after the fact. $\endgroup$ – Moo Feb 10 at 3:52
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It sounds like it was a non-emergency condition where it wasn't feasible to continue to destination but it wasn't imperative to land ASAP. Something like an anti-icing malfunction where you can't continue into icing conditions (all you need is visible moisture and temps close to freezing; clouds of any kind near or above the freezing level constitutes "technical icing conditions" and you may at minimum have to have working cowl anti-ice to fly through them).

The crew will often consult with airline Operations and Maintenance Control over a desired diversion airport. Having decided not to proceed to destination, the next best choice is to go back to the departure airport, where passengers that originated at the departure airport can simply go home and return for a later flight.

The other major factor is maintenance related. Maintenance Control will often ask the capt to divert to airport X because the resources are there, so if the departure airport was a maintenance base, that's another plus.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd change the order a bit. First consideration is "where can we get this fixed". If that is not an issue, then passenger considarations come at play. Dep airport might actually not be a well equipped one (and/or not a base for the airline) so even if passengers might prefer going back there, maintenance considerations override the needs of the pax. You just don't fly a broken plane to an airport with no maintenance, as you'd have to ferry the plane somewhere empty, or worse, you'd be stuck there and maintenance+parts would have to be flown there. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 Feb 8 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on the fault. But yeah Maintenance Control probably has the most influence depending on the airline. A Jazz RJ capt I know told me once they almost always divert to where Maint Control tells them when they get a Caution Message enroute. $\endgroup$ – John K Feb 8 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ Unless of course you are Kenn Borek Air who seem to enjoy repeated repairs in field :) $\endgroup$ – Pavel Feb 10 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ Another benefit to returning to your departure airport is that it probably saves on visa issues for the passengers. Landing in another country can be a hassle. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Feb 10 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ Not everyone getting on the plane at the departure airport lives in the departure city or even has a convenient place to stay in the departure city. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Feb 10 at 16:21
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According to this article, the flight had a problem with one of the landing gear doors not properly closing. This caused too much fuel consumption to reach the destination airport. In such a case, an alternative landing airport is needed, but there is no urgency to land as soon as possible. 22 minutes after take-off the aircraft started its turn back to the departure airport, far from the halfway point between Barcelona and Malaga.

It is not uncommon for airlines to return to the departure airport instead of landing at the nearest airport in case of an in-flight failure. In this case, I can imagine that Vueling have more maintenance expertise at their biggest home-base Barcelona than at either Valencia or Tarragona.

They can repair the aircraft or make a replacement aircraft available to execute the flight with a few hours delay, or offer alternative flights to Malaga. Either solution will likely be quicker from Barcelona than from the other two cities.

For some passengers the trip to Malaga would no longer be needed after three hours delay (e.g. those that were flying there for a short meeting). For those passengers being back in Barcelona is better than being stuck in either Valencia or Tarragona.

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