What Controllers Wish You Knew About ATC

Pilot: “Nemesis Ground, how do you read Beechgraph 593 Romeo Lima?”

Ground Controller: “Beechgraph 593 Romeo Lima, Nemesis Ground, loud and clear. Go ahead.”

Pilot: “I’ve tried calling you five times, Ground. We’re ready to taxi with X-ray, Beechgraph 593 Romeo Lima.”


Pilot: “L’Aire Jet 7 Hotel Victor is getting pretty beat up by turbulence, Center. Are you going to have that deviation right of course for us in my lifetime?”

Center Controller: “L’Aire Jet 7 Hotel Victor, standby. I’m coordinating.”


Most pilots understand that air traffic control is a busy job. Even though I’m a good multi-tasker, I don’t believe I have the chops to handle the stress and workload of an air traffic controller. (Maybe I could, but I wouldn’t want to. How about you?) Point is, even when the aircraft radio is quiet, that doesn’t mean the air traffic controller working your flight isn’t busy.

If you were to visit any air traffic control facility, you would see more than controllers simply talking to aircraft on the radio. You would see controllers managing multiple landlines; controllers talking to other controllers; controllers relaying information to other agencies; controllers updating their supervisors; controllers organizing flight strips and other paperwork. I don’t mean you would see each controller handling only one of these additional tasks. You would see each controller handling all of these tasks continually.

Do Not Ignore Me!

When an air traffic controller does not answer your radio call immediately or does not grant your request immediately, that does not mean he is ignoring you. It means he is busier than most people might imagine. No need to imagine though. Let’s have some air traffic controllers to tell you like it is.

Here is a reprint of the responses air traffic controllers made in a survey put out by the Global Aviation Information Network* (GAIN) in 2004.

General Misconceptions about ATC


• “I wish pilots understood that ATC separates airplanes from not only other airplanes, but airspace as well.”

• “Many pilots had a misunderstanding of the ATC interpretation of a MAYDAY call, and do not fully appreciate that this call will ensure that the ATC unit concerned will immediately take certain actions on receipt of the call.” (Guidelines for Controller Training in the Handling of Unusual/Emergency Situations, EUROCONTROL, 2003)

• “That we can easily approve any and all requests that they have, that the sky is really empty and that they can just do what they want without consequences to others flying within the system.”

• “A quiet radio doesn’t necessarily indicate controller isn’t busy.”

• “Pilots often believe that controllers will initiate vectors to steer them clear of weather areas.”

• “All airports aren’t created the same and neither is the airspace around the country. What works well in one place won’t work well in another due to the traffic flows or lack thereof due to obstruction, lack of runways, etc.”

• “I wish pilots better understood the constraints and limitations of the NAS (National Airspace System) to accommodate requests, such as direct routings, altitude changes, etc.”

• “We are doing more that just talking to them at any given moment.”

• “I believe pilots do not understand that for every change made in their routing or altitude, there is usually a need for “paperwork” to follow, e.g. a flight plan amendment.”

• “Pilots do not grasp the concept of ‘delegated airspace’ and the reason controllers just can’t ‘look and go.’”

• “There is very little understanding among pilots about the need for controllers to coordinate with each other.”

• “We are actually busier than they think we are and that we are normally watching many more things than they are aware of.”

Information about ATC that Could Benefit Pilots


• Radar fundamentals – ATC can see only ground track & ground speed.

• Separation requirements.

• Large diversity of aircraft under ATC control.

• Airspace limitations.

• Frequency limitations for controllers (keeping radio transmissions concise, etc.).

• Effects on controller workload when deviating for weather or when not providing adequate notification when unable to comply with ATC instructions.

• Pilots could benefit by seeing “the actual sectorization that exists and how this determines what clearances are issued when.”

• “Local and ground controllers verbally coordinate runway crossings.”

• “The value of documenting errors or deviations – not for punitive purposes, but for safety improvement by discovering latent conditions.”

Suggestions for Pilots to Increase Effectiveness of Communication/Coordination with ATC


• “Increase training on phraseology and radio technique.”

• “Listen to transmissions not for you to get the big picture.”

• “Always, ALWAYS, use a call sign.”

• “Inform controllers when unsure of procedures, when uncomfortable with a control instruction, or when requiring additional assistance.”

• “PLEASE go to facilities and see what the issues are, and get involved with your local safety program.”

“Reprinted by permission from the Global Aviation Information Network.”

I know you probably have some thoughts on this. I’m sure you would like air traffic controllers to know how busy it can get for you in the cockpit. Not to worry. The survey also asked the same questions of pilots. If you would like to look at the survey results and a very comprehensive report about how to improve pilot/controller communications follow this link to the complete study: http://flightsafety.org/files/pilot_controller_miscon.pdf

*The GAIN team was comprised of representatives from US Airways, EuroControl, FAA, NATCA, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and JIL Information Systems.


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2 thoughts on “What Controllers Wish You Knew About ATC”

  1. Hi Jeff, let me give you a Little advise if you are going to fly the Amazonas (Brasil). The controller allways gives two frequencies so better be ready with paper and pen, because the second head of the Nav-Com will not do the job. The controller will say something like: N1AA change to Amazonia Control on 127.25 or 132.6

    1. Thank you Felix. We also get two HF frequencies any time we fly over-ocean routes out of range of VHF. We get a primary HF frequency and a backup HF frequency in case the primary does not work. I always write those down.

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