ATC Route Clearance Contest

It’s Day 3 of a difficult airline trip. I’m not, what’s the word? Mentally fresh.

Oh, it hurts to ask for a repeat of the clearance.
We’ve been sitting for hours at the gate in Raleigh-Durham (RDU), waiting for a line of thunderstorms to pass through Atlanta, our destination. As our fifth (rescheduled) departure time approaches, I dial up RDU clearance delivery in the number one radio. Look out, cause here it comes.


Normally, airline pilots get their ATC route clearance, called a Pre-Departure Clearance, or PDC, via a datalink. The datalink shoots the text of the clearance from ATC’s computer system to a small CRT in the cockpit. When the clearance arrives on screen, we touch the prompt button on the screen and a printer attached to the center control console spits out the printed clearance. Easy as cake.

Today, the CRT reads “Delta XXX. KRDU – KATL. PDC Not Available.” This means one of two possibilities. Either we’ve sat at the gate so long that our flight plan has expired in ATC’s computer system, or there is a significant change to our route of flight and the clearance delivery man wants to ‘splain it to us.

“Delta XXX, Raleigh Clearance, I have a full route clearance for you. Advise when ready to copy.” Yep, the route has changed. I look at the captain to see if he’s ready to copy. He nods.

“Delta XXX is ready to copy.”

“Delta XXX is cleared to the Atlanta Airport via yadeeyadee6blahblahblahLibertydirectumptyumpptyblahblah9arrival. Yadeeyadeeblah. Maintain 5000expectsomethingorotheronezerominutesafterdeparture. Blahblahfrequencywillbemumbleblahblahpointblah. Squawk2blah7yadee.”

I look at the captain. “Did you get any of that?” He shakes his head no.

“Um, Clearance, Delta XXX really didn’t get any of that. We’ll need you to read it again.” And here the controller slides into his Don Rickles suit and summons up his most sarcastic voice.

“Delta XXX, you did say you were ready to copy the clearance, right?”

Normally, I might go to the trouble to let my blood boil, but it’s late and getting worked up seems like too much, um, work. Instead, I say, “Delta XXX, that was a complete change to our clearance and you read it back pretty fast. Let’s try it again a little slower.” (I think I might have added “Please,” but I can’t remember.)

He re-reads the clearance, and credit his professionalism, he doesn’t do it in an ultra slow, condescending voice as I’ve heard some controllers do. We both understand the clearance that time and I read it back correctly. Problem solved.

Copying ATC route clearances is not a contest between you and the controller. Don’t let it bother you if you don’t always get it right the first time. It won’t kill the controller to repeat the clearance, even if he tries to make you believe it will. It’s his job to make sure you accurately understand your clearance. As long as you get the clearance right before departing, nothing else matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and fly safe.

What do you think?


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2 thoughts on “ATC Route Clearance Contest”

  1. Agreed.
    I’m a controller at Newark and I’ve had to read a many FRC’s especially in the summers. In my opinion it’s better to just go slow the first time and get it right rather then fast 2-3 times. In the event that I need to read it agin it’s not a big deal because that’s our job. There have been a few times I input flight plans for pilots when it timed out or got removed and I asked the pilot to read me his requested route and I have to say it’s not easy writing the route especially if it’s not something you’re expecting. Kudos to the pilots dealing with atc during bad weather days and re routes.

    1. Thank you Sam for backing me up on this. Most controllers I’ve worked with handle full route clearances very professionally and courteously.

      Best wishes,


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