Update: The U.S. government shutdown ended as of 10/16/13 . The tips for working with ATC described in this article still apply. Read on. Jeff
Till now, I’ve been silent on the issue of air traffic controllers working without pay for two reasons. First, I know you come to this website for advice on how to talk on the radio, not to hear my philosophy on political issues. Second, what could I possibly add to the conversation that would make a difference? I do have some advice for you; and there are some simple things all of us can do to make a difference.
Even if you don’t regularly use ATC services when you fly, you still benefit from air traffic control. ATC maintains the National Airspace System (NAS). When you operate VFR and you are not talking to ATC, you still enjoy open skies, segregated from high-speed jet traffic operating in the higher segments of the NAS. At lower altitudes, ATC steers IFR traffic away from your position whether you are aware of it or not. Point is, the structure of air traffic control helps keep you safe even when you are not directly linked to ATC.
On a normal day, we pilots owe a debt of gratitude to air traffic controllers for helping us stay safe as we fly. Today, October 15, 2013 is not a normal day. It hasn’t been normal since October 1. The men and women who run the system that helps you fly safely are continuing to work for you even though they are not getting paid.
Did you also know that air traffic controllers who leave their control facility during their duty day for any reason, including illness, are instantly placed on furlough? Absolutely true. Vacation? Out of the question. Taking a personal day to deal with a family emergency? Not now. Would you remain dedicated to doing a good job, let alone work under these conditions?
Oh, and by the way, much of the support staff for ATC facilities, such as engineers, maintenance, and almost everyone else who keeps the air traffic control machinery running are on furlough. If today, something breaks in a radar room, it will probably stay broken.
Even if Congress raises the U.S. debt ceiling today, air traffic controllers and most other federal employees might not see a regular paycheck for up to 3 months. That’s how long it may take to spin up and straighten out the accounting for civil servants’ pay.
What can you do as a pilot to help? First, if you do work with ATC today or in the near future, please be patient. Consider the circumstances of the person at the other end of the radio. Air traffic controllers already have a stressful job. That stress has been increased tremendously by the need to continue working under extremely difficult conditions. If you are not getting what you need from ATC as quickly as you would like, and safety is not an issue, take a deep breath and wait.
Second, be professional on the radio. Do everything by the book, including using your call sign in every transmission. Use standard phraseology. Listen carefully so your controller does not have to repeat an instruction. In short, do everything you can to keep your controller’s workload as low as possible.
Finally, a short thank you or a show of support for the good service you are receiving from your controller is appropriate if the radio is not busy. If your controller seems very busy at the moment, your best show of support might be to say only what is required and not distract the controller with a thank you. Use your best judgement.