Coping with Busy Airspace

The time between ATC’s radio transmissions differs depending on the amount of traffic in a controller’s airspace. The more traffic in a section of airspace, the less time between ATC transmissions. Take comfort in the fact that no matter how busy the radio seems, the words and phrases ATC uses remain exactly the same words and phrases used when traffic is light. You don’t need specialized knowledge to cope with ATC in busy airspace. All you need is to focus on the radio a little bit more and listen carefully for your call sign.

A Few Notes of Concern

It’s unfortunate that when the radio gets busy with a lot of traffic, many controllers speed up their rate of speech. This, more than anything else, makes low-time pilots nervous. Logic says it is more easy to miss detail in a clearance when that clearance is fired off to you at a rapid pace. If this is a concern for you, I have a few suggestions for coping.

If the controller is talking rapidly, don’t match his speed. There is absolutely no requirement to talk as fast as your controller. None. Many pilots fall into the trap of trying to reply rapidly when the controller speeds up. The result resembles a panicked herd of steer–a stampede on the radio. A stampede equals chaos with grave potential for errors and injury. Keep your own rate of speech under control. This requires a conscious effort and self-discipline to resist the herd’s momentum. Your intentional effort to remain calm and talk at a relaxed conversational pace will translate to smoother safer control of the aircraft as well. As my friend Steve Phillis used to say, “As the radios go, so goes the flight.”

Keep your priorities straight in busy airspace. The constants are 1. Aviate; 2. Navigate; 3. Communicate. If you miss a radio transmission from ATC because the aircraft or your flight path needed attention at the moment, so be it. Your controller won’t drop dead if you miss a transmission. The same can’t be said for you if you sacrifice aircraft control to focus on answering the radio.

If the pace of communications causes you to misunderstand an ATC clearance, a judicious use of “Say again” will quickly fix the problem. If the controller’s rapid-fire delivery was the problem, using “Say again slowly” is your go-to solution. Many pilots shy away from “Say again slowly” because they think it is an admission of weakness, i.e. “I can’t keep up”. When it comes to the safe conduct of flight, there is no such thing as weakness. There’s only doing whatever it takes to maintain safety.

Preparing to Fly

I have a couple more suggestions for preparing to fly into busy airspace. If you have the time and opportunity to listen to controllers working the airport or airspace prior to your flight, do so. You can listen in via for your intended point of departure or destination. Focus on ATC transmissions, not pilot readbacks. Pilots often make procedurally incorrect transmissions.

If you have questions about specific ATC phrases, prior to your flight, look those phrases up in the Aeronautical Information Manual’s Pilot/Controller Glossary. The AIM’s section on ATC procedures also has good examples of ATC phrases and pilot readbacks. My Radio Mastery books for VFR and for IFR pilots (available at are also filled with tips and techniques on coping with busy radio frequencies.

When flying into busy airspace, keep your head on a swivel and your eyes open for traffic. Keep your ears open too as you listen for your call sign. Know that ATC phrasing remains constant regardless of the amount of traffic in an airspace. The words remain the same. Only the pacing changes as airspace gets busy.


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