ATC is a Customer Service Organization.

Confession: Selling a house this month + flying a full schedule = not enough time to produce a Radar Contact Show. Over the next couple of days, I’m going to release a series of articles that will eventually be combined into a single Radar Contact Show. Today’s article will change how you view and work with ATC. Onward.



A pilot named Alex wrote to me with this question: “Hello Jeff. Please advise the right way to ask ATC to repeat slowly. I ask because the phrase “say again slowly” , for me, does not sound good.”

Here’s how I answered:


I always think of air traffic controllers as customer service representatives. They aren’t sky police or aviation gods. It’s perfectly okay to tell them what you need in plain language when they aren’t giving you the kind of customer service you need or expect.

When an air traffic controller says something to me that comes across too fast for me to interpret, I say, “Would you please repeat that a little slower?” Nothing fancy or official here. Just plain and polite language to encourage better customer service.

If someone put a request to you in that manner, wouldn’t you think, “Okay, let’s give this guy what he needs?” That’s how air traffic controllers think and operate if you are polite and reasonable.


Straight Out of the Manual

Here is the opening paragraph in the manual used by air traffic controllers,  J.O. 7110.65 Air Traffic Control. I’ve highlighted each instance of the word “service” or “services” in this paragraph.


The primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to organize and expedite the flow of traffic, and to provide support for National Security and Homeland Defense. In addition to its primary function, the ATC system has the capability to provide (with certain limitations) additional services. The ability to provide additional services is limited by many factors, such as the volume of traffic, frequency congestion, quality of radar, controller workload, higher priority duties, and the pure physical inability to scan and detect those situations that fall in this category. It is recognized that these services cannot be provided in cases in which the provision of services is precluded by the above factors. Consistent with the aforementioned conditions, controllers must provide additional service procedures to the extent permitted by higher priority duties and other circumstances. The provision of additional services is not optional on the part of the controller, but rather is required when the work situation permits.

After reading this I hope it’s as apparent to you, as it is to me, that ATC is a service organization. You are its customer. Without you and your fellow pilots, there would be no need for ATC to exist.

Standard Phrases for Clarity

The FAA would like you to use standardize phrases when working with your customer service rep so there are no misunderstandings during communication. In Alex’s case, there is a standard phrase he can draw on from the AIM. It’s in the AIM’s Pilot/Controller Glossary.

“SPEAK SLOWER− Used in verbal communications as a request to reduce speech rate.” Never underestimate the FAA’s capacity for defining the obvious.

If you, like Alex, feel that specific phrasing sounds demanding, then consider this other passage in the AIM.

You’ll find this in the very first section of the AIM dealing with Air Traffic Control. Specifically look at Section 4-2-1, paragraph b. where it says, “Since concise phraseology may not always be adequate, use whatever words are necessary to get your message across.”

This statement backs up what I just said. If you think of ATC as a customer service organization, you’ll feel comfortable telling the controller what you need in your own words. Make your needs known, preferably in the form of a request, and your customer service agent at the other end of the radio will do his or her best to help you out.

Plain Language Isn’t an All-Encompassing Solution

Before we step away from this subject, I want to offer one clarification. Even though the AIM says you can use plain language to tell ATC what you need, do pay attention to the first part of that passage: “Since concise phraseology may not always be adequate . . .” The FAA is reminding you there is “concise phraseology” for most circumstances. Don’t use this passage in the AIM as an excuse to blow off standard phraseology in its entirety.

Put another way, don’t do what you hear so many professional pilots do and ignore the standard phrases. Listen to the radio long enough and you’ll hear the so-called pro’s using slang and other good old boy phrases because–well, who knows why? Stick to the standards when they apply. Enough said.

Next time:

Selecting and using the correct Common Traffic Advisory Frequency.


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2 thoughts on “ATC is a Customer Service Organization.”

  1. As a retired controller who also is a pilot, I’ve worked on both sides of the mic. I agree 100% that ATC is a customer service profession, but it’s worth noting that controllers don’t work with just one customer at a time. Often, precise timing is required, and that means other customers will need to wait.

    Also, if a customer service agent at a hotel loses a reservation, the outcome is less serious than if a controller loses a customer due to a mistake.

    Pilots need to respect controllers and controllers need to respect pilots – and everybody needs to keep calm and carry on.

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