An aviation PACT: Pilot ATC Conversation Time

We work together, but…

Pilots and ATC work together, directly, throughout pretty much all our operations. ATC support pilots during high pressure, challenging events, and both roles are working at all times towards the same goals of safety and efficiency.

But we don’t train together?

We don’t even really talk to each other (off the radio waves anyway) and we certainly don’t have much opportunity to work on our CRM with each other. And this all adds up to both sides often lacking a clear idea of what is affecting the other role, what impact their actions might have on the ‘bigger picture’, and a limited awareness of how their methods for achieving those goals might actually, at times, be contradictive.

So why aren’t we talking more?

Well, I figured it might be because all ATC are mean and pilots are always causing them trouble (I didn’t think that at all!), but I did know that there are a lot of questions from both ‘sides’ so when I was offered the chance to sit in on an informal chat between ATC and pilots I jumped (not literally) at the chance, and afterwards I figured I would write up a whole “How to Work Better Together” thing.

The thing is though – while I was on the chat I realised I had as many questions as ATC did, had as many assumptions and quite possibly far less awareness of their challenges. So, probably not the best person to be writing that “How to Work Better Together” thing at all.

So, instead, here is a (sort of) write up on what we talked about.*

I hope it is useful to pilots and ATC and offers some little learning points for everyone!

*’Sort of’ because it wasn’t recorded and this is entirely from memory and not necessarily what was said at all, but is based off the very brilliant and insightful conversations we had, and what I learned from them, and I have just tried to capture the sorts of questions and answers we discussed.

Pilot vs ATC Battle: Round 1

(Joking! It was great and everyone was super nice!)

  • (Panicked) Pilot Question: Wow, there are a lot of you on here and just me… are you going to be mean?

No, definitely not! This is all about asking questions and sharing insights to build better understanding and team work…

Pilot: Phew! Ok, hi then!

…And some of us fly as well – light aircraft, instructing – so we are very interested in hearing the pilot perspective on all these questions.


  • ATC Question: Can you stop using the phrase ‘painting on the radar’ because it doesn’t mean anything for us?

Yes, we can, but we like the sound of it, and that is kinda what the weather radar does – it paints us a map of the weather… [long pause]… OK, yes, we should try and use more standards terms and not assume everyone knows what we mean, sorry!

  • ATC Question: While we are talking weather radar, what exactly do you see?

Well, it paints… sorry, it displays a sort of weather map on our primary navigation display in pretty colours. Well, I say pretty but actually the pinks and reds mean hideous storms of doom and destruction and we avoid those. Yellows and greens are generally more in the heavy rain but possibly ok to go into range.

  • ATC Question: So you actually see it all the time? Is there a reason you don’t always give us much notice for avoiding headings then?

Erm…well, maybe we forgot to turn our weather radar on? Good old human error is a likely cause, I’ve done that myself, but it might also be that we couldn’t get a call in sooner, or a storm developed far more than we expected.

Our weather radar are also not always entirely reliable, particularly at long distances. In my aircraft they tend to be accurate from around 80nm (that’s about 6 or so minutes if I’m flying fast) and even then it isn’t always easy to judge. If there is weather everywhere then we might still be trying to work out which is the least bad way to head and it can mean late decisions, or changes to decisions, which can mean late requests to ATC.

  • ATC Question: How much do you avoid weather by?

Smaller stuff maybe 10 or 20nm to the side, and we always try to aim downwind so it doesn’t blow towards us. If we can’t go downwind then we may need to have a larger heading change or offset if the winds are strong. Bigger can be up to 40nm and if you fly over the ICTZ then it can require hundreds of miles.

We try to avoid heading through “gaps” or corridors between storms as they might join up, or it might be a shadow on the radar with something nasty lurking behind. If we want to fly over storms we need about 5000′ clearance vertically as it can be incredibly turbulent on the tops, but some storms can be 60,000′ or higher even so that isn’t always an option.

  • Pilot Question: So, you don’t have weather radar?

It depends. At LFPG/Paris Charles de Gaulle we do, but it isn’t superimposed onto the same ATC screen as the traffic is showing on so it isn’t easy to control aircraft around weather. We can give advise based on the way most other aircraft are heading, but we need the pilots to let us know where they want to head…

… Sometimes it doesn’t make sense – we’ll see a whole bunch of aircraft going to the right and one aircraft going to the left…

  • Pilot Question: I guess that causes issues for you?

If it is busy out and we are trying to vector everyone for the approach then it would be easier if aircraft could try and request headings that consider where the other traffic is. Obviously not if its a safety thing, but we would expect aircraft to make similar requests around weather so it does cause some confusion when one aircraft is not following the herd.


  • ATC Question: Why would you not make the same request as everyone else?

We can’t base our decision on whether to fly into weather on whether the aircraft on front of us has (there are too many ‘whethers’ in that sentence, I know!)

Anyway, we can’t because the traffic in front might be bigger, more capable of handling the turbulence, icing, or might just have really rubbish pilots on board who have forgotten to turn their weather radar on… so we do listen to what other aircraft are doing and we do look at our TCAS and use it to assist, but we don’t make the decision based off it.

When we are operating in busy airspace like the NAT HLA, we also consider where other traffic is when determining which way to turn, but the weather always takes priority because it can’t move, and other airplanes can.

In terminal airspace it is more challenging because everyone is heading from different points, we don’t really know the ATC plan and it tends to require quicker decisions on where to head. We also have to think more about whether we might head into prohibited or danger airspace, how much of a deviation is going to be required if we head one way of the other, so there is a lot going on.

  • Pilot Question: I have been into US airports where they are able to provide control around the weather. Is there any plan for this in European airports?

ATC follow-up question: Where abouts have you seen that?

Pilot Answer: Places like Florida where they get massive storms in the summer. I guess the airspace is some of the busiest in the world there so they kind of have to. I know the FAA publish weather ‘play books’ – sort of route planning for when large sections are disrupted by the size of the weather…

Ah yeah ok, that makes sense. It would be great to have the ability to do more of that in Europe especially at the busier airports like Paris. I think there has been some talk of it, or for improving the radar screens we see to help us do more of it but not anything in the immediate future.

  • ATC Question: Do you… sometimes. say there is weather en-route just to get a shortcut though?

No! That would be really unprofessional!

  • Pilot Confession: OK, I can’t confirm or deny but

There is probably more going on for us if we do. Maybe with our fuel, or if we are running really late and thinking about fatigue or FTLs or curfews. We might not have loads of spare fuel, especially if we have had to burn more earlier because of weather. I guess it is better to be honest with ATC though and request support and offer the reason, rather than making up some weather but it isn’t always easy to be sure how much information to provide.

  • ATC Question: That is the same for us – how much information do you want from us regarding weather?

Ha, well, it depends… really helpful answer I know! In the terminal area it would be really beneficial to get more headings from ATC because you have a way clearer picture of how the whole airspace looks traffic-wise. En-route, I guess it is much easier for us to monitor the weather and make requests in advance.

We do get SigWx charts in our briefing packs so generally have a good idea of what is up ahead, but the one thing we could really use more info on is clear air turbulence (CAT). We know there is some out there but don’t know exactly where or how serious it will be, and this isn’t something we can see on our weather radars so we are really reliant on AIREPS from other flights ahead on the same route and ATC giving information on ride reports and available levels.

We need to plan for this too because we have to think about securing the cabin, seating passengers and crew, pausing the service, and CAT regions tend to be quite big so if we are going to be needing to change levels it can mean large changes in fuel burn which we need to think about.


  • Pilot Question: When we are low on fuel we call ‘minimum fuel’, what does that actually mean to ATC?

That your fuel is sufficient based off the expected approach time you’ve been given, and so long as nothing changes. We won’t give priority over other traffic unless you declare a fuel mayday.

  • ATC Question: Why, what does it mean to you?

Well, that, but I guess that is the book explanation. When we say it, what we are sort of actually saying is “Hey, I’m up here with hundreds of people onboard and I do nooottt feel super comfortable about how much fuel I have left and I am doing some pretty crazy mental calculations right now to make sure I do have enough because those gusts sounds vicious and my alternate weather isn’t much better and I am pretty tired and urgh… yeah… minimum fuel… please support me if you can!”

Maybe not that dramatic, and we don’t expect priority when we say it, but we aren’t just stating something for the regulations, we are really telling you “We are on minimum fuel and if anything changes now then we are going to be in a very serious fuel situation so any support you can provide to help us avoid a fuel MAYDAY is important right now.”

  • ATC Question: What does your fuel planning look like then? You obviously take-off with enough?

Yes, of course. The fuel planning done by the operator is really in-depth but the issue we have – especially on long flights – is that it can be hard to decide if more is needed for the flight. Contingency fuel is there for unforeseen stuff, and we have the option to add more again, but fuel is expensive and operators need us to fly efficiently so we can’t just throw another few tonnes on ‘just in case’ – we need a reason, and it can be hard to judge exactly how much.

Talking about the minimum fuel call, when we get to a destination stuff we have encountered en-route can mean we have less at destination than we intended for things like holding if there is weather. So then we have to make a decision whether to hold, how long to hold for, whether to commit to destination, chose a different alternate which is closer… and that is hard as well because we don’t know exactly what the weather is going to do.

Those things en-route could be stuff like not being given the level we expect – flying a few thousand feet lower can be as much as 5% extra fuel burn. Same with getting different speeds, being vectored around airspace we didn’t expect to have to fly around. If we experience CAT then we might need to change levels so we have more of a margin between our max high speed and min low speed… A lot of things can lead to extra unforeseen fuel burn.

  • ATC Question: But then you can declare a fuel emergency en-route if you need to?

Absolutely, and we would, but we are not really going to be in a fuel emergency during the cruise – unless we have a fuel leak, or a technical issue that has required a descent for example. Generally, low fuel is going to occur at or near to destination and then we have a lot to consider in not much time.

We can’t wait until we are in a fuel emergency to call a MAYDAY, and it is a very serious thing if we do, so we’ve got to do everything we can to avoid that which means things like flying more conservatively with our speed, asking for directs, declaring ‘minimum fuel’. We aren’t doing those things to try and get in quicker because we have plans in the evening (well, mostly not) but to avoid reaching a much more serious MAYDAY point.

  • Pilot Question: I guess when there is weather about and a lot of aircraft are calling ‘minimum fuel’ that’s when it gets far more tough for you?

Definitely. We are trying to support all those aircraft and give accurate EATs but we can’t give priority to anyone unless they are on an emergency. Those EATs might have to change if someone does declare an emergency, or if the weather continues to prevent aircraft from landing.

When we start to see go-arounds we then have to consider how we are vectoring those aircraft into the queue for their next approach attempt, or if they need to divert how we manage their route through our TMA with so many other aircraft in the area.

Good reports from pilots on the conditions they experience, things like wind shear, and of course accurate estimates for how long they can hold and what their plan is going to be really help.


  • Pilot Question: How much do ATC think about things like tailwinds on the approach?

A fair amount – we know that aircraft might have tailwind limits for landing and it is a disruption to change runway direction so it is something we monitor. We don’t necessarily know what the wind is doing at higher altitudes though, just the surface wind.

  • ATC Question: What other considerations do you have with wind?

Pilot follow-up question: I didn’t realise you aren’t necessarily aware of the wind higher up. Wind tends to back and decrease as you get lower so I guess you can have a guess at the higher winds?

ATC answer: Yes, we can, but not always accurately enough to support you.

Yeah, that makes sense. Tailwinds are a problem for our energy management – if we are on a big intercept heading, or have a really strong tailwind for the intercept then it can mean we need to slow down more than ATC expect in order to not shoot through the localiser. Same on the approach, a strong tailwind might limit whether we can do something like 160knots to 4nm which is common for ATC to request.

We also have to think about stuff like our brake temperatures in some aircraft. We might not be able to make an exit as easily as usual if we land longer than we mean to, or if the tailwind is stronger, as it could mean hot brakes which affects the turnaround and the next departure.

  • Pilot Question: Sometimes ATC tell us which exit to take quite late – like on landing which is a bit distracting. That’s not really a question actually just an observation.

With busy runways, especially single runway airports, ATC are trying to manage all the traffic arriving and departing so would expect aircraft to vacate where, well, they normally would. So if you can’t, tell ATC on the approach so they can space the aircraft behind better. Same with the tailwind – if you can’t manage a speed then advise ATC in advance so they can manage the separation.

  • Pilot Question: That’s fair. The same with our descents actually as well – if you ask us to ‘slow down and go down’ it can be difficult.

Absolutely – if you can’t make a restriction just tell us. We are trying to keep you safe and separated from the other traffic. Usually when we give you a late clearance or request like that it is because another aircraft in front hasn’t been able to meet theirs, or has slowed down earlier or is a higher wake category and we are trying to manage that.

Ultimately, ATC are trying to provide you with the best info and clearances to keep you safe, but we are trying to do that in the context of a much bigger picture and a lot of aircraft. You – the pilots – are obviously far more aware of your own limitations and what is impacting you directly than ATC is.


  • ATC Question: It really is about better communication between us all. Which leads me to another question – is it an issue when ATC speak a local language at airports instead of English? Where’s the worst for that?

In the past I have experienced it quite a lot at de Gaulle (sorry!) but to be honest it happens in Italian, Spanish other European airports as well, and a lot in some South American spots. The issue is we can miss key information on other traffic, or safety related info.

One time into Paris I was flying under an Air France callsign (we were a subsidiary) but neither me nor the Captain spoke French. It was contaminated runway ops but the braking action had massively improved – something they told us in French when they gave the landing clearance so we didn’t understand it. When we didn’t respond they just gave the clearance to land again, in English, so we landed expecting lower braking action and didn’t expedite vacating (we thought it would be more slippery) and it caused issues for ATC and the aircraft behind because they figured we knew.

  • Pilot Question: But I guess there is also a challenge there for ATC because English might not be your native language and I know native English speakers can be pretty bad at thinking about how understandable we might actually be.

That’s true, some crew tend to be more relaxed with their calls…

Pilot Question: From the States?

Yes, their RT isn’t always standard

Pilot Comment: I find it the same with some of the controllers there actually.

I think many non-native English speakers maybe think more about speaking correctly because they have to, especially in high pressured situations, whereas native English speakers maybe fall more easily into speaking how they normally would, if that makes sense.

Pilot Comment: There was a cargo aircraft out of Narita I think who had a cargo fire warning or something, I can’t quite remember, but they gave quite colloquial, non-standard calls to ATC and really confused them. So what we communicate and how seems to be a big part of all this.

What I learned

Communication really is key!

I fly with a lot of assumptions – like that ATC know I am having issues with energy management, or that they will be aware I need a little longer to line up. The thing is, they are managing a whole load of aircraft and are not necessarily aware of my specific challenges and everything I am considering, just as I am not necessarily aware of everything they are trying to handle across the airspace.

So a big, key point seems to be that ATC are there to help and are really friendly, and are very open to us simply saying what we need, just as pilots are happy to answer questions and be given a chance to explain.

This conversation focused a lot on weather – which makes sense, it is a big cause of disruption and incidents in aviation. In the USA last year, 1% of all flights were cancelled at one point due weather, and in Europe it tends to count for the majority of delays and disruptions (along with staffing issues). CAT over the North Atlantic has increased significantly, climate changes have led to more severe weather in certain parts of the world and neither pilots or ATC are necessarily involved in the conversations on a lot of that.

So working together and communicating is ever more important and actually something we can very easily do.

Then there is the English thing…

This was a BIG part of the discussion, but I haven’t gone into it here because I think it is too big a discussion to fit in one summary and because The Aviation English Hub is doing a huge amount of work on this which I think everyone should get involved in.

They run discussions, like this one, as well as workshops and discussions via zoom to encourage conversations on aviation communications. So a huge thanks to Valerie Wilson who organised this chat, and to the Aviation English Hub for supporting safety in our industry so well.


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