The pilot was just trying to get home. He filed a route from Pennsylvania to his destination in Delaware. The weather was acting up. He’d already delayed his departure, waiting out weather over his destination and along his route.
Once in the air, he wrangled a few shortcuts from Cleveland Center, shaving plenty of mileage off of his filed route. So far so good. He was saving time and getting around the remaining weather.
Once he got into Washington Center’s airspace, though, things got a bit more difficult. Instead of letting him go direct to his destination, Washington ATC issued him a clearance all the way down to Baltimore, Maryland, then back up to his destination. With a quick look at his chart, he knew that would put him in a minimum fuel situation. Most ungood.
When he expressed this to Washington Center, the controller told him that, because of “flow restrictions”, there was no way he could get another route. Maybe, ATC told him, once he got into Potomac TRACON’s airspace they could work something out for him. Even after much negotiating, all the adamant center controller could say was, “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Our pilot reluctantly took the clearance, knowing that if he had to ride all the way down to Baltimore, he’d probably have to divert somewhere and refuel. To his surprise, upon entering Potomac‘s airspace, their controller immediately gave him direct destination. The rest of the flight was uneventful.
Still, our pilot wondered after landing, why was one controller seemingly so difficult, and the other eager to please? Hadn’t he done everything right?
Imagine you’re throwing a party at your house and have a bunch of people showing up. Do you want your guests to enter through the doors, the windows, the chimney and the basement vents? All are viable options for getting inside, right? Well, unless you wanted some entertainment value, I’d imagine you’d just want them coming in through the front door. It’s safer, more organized, and you can monitor who is coming or going.
Radar controllers view their facility’s airspace as their “house.” When they’re being fed a high volume of aircraft from other radar facilities, they want the outside controllers to direct these planes only to established “doors.” These “gates” as we controllers call them, are defined in Letters of Agreement (LOAs) between facilities.
A house’s door is only so wide and so tall. ATC gates aren’t wood or metal, of course, but their vertical and lateral restrictions are just as clearly defined. In an LOA between a center and a TRACON, an example gate can be expressed like: “All aircraft overflying TRACON’s airspace from the west are to be cleared over FFFIX intersection and level at an odd altitude between 5000 and 15,000 feet.” FFFIX intersection is the gate’s location. The altitudes define its vertical limits. Instead of a chaotic rush of traffic at all directions and altitudes, the TRACON receives their planes over a specific point within a specific block of altitude. An organized flow is a safe flow.
The Washington Center controller earlier mentioned “flow” with Potomac TRACON. What he’s really talking about are the gates between his airspace and Potomac’s. Per center’s LOA with the TRACON, he’s required to feed them traffic via specific fixes and altitudes. If there’s also weather in the area—as there was in this case—some gates may be unusable, restricting flow options. Approving our pilot’s request for a shortcut may have put that controller in violation of that LOA.
So, it’s a classic standoff. The pilot isn’t in a great position, since doing what ATC wants may put him in a low fuel state. ATC can’t give him a shortcut because it’ll put him in violation of his LOAs.
On the Inside
In this situation, the only option the controller could give our pilot was the clearance south through Baltimore through Potomac’s gate. Despite his reservations, our pilot accepted the clearance, hoping for a shortcut down the line. Washington Center did say Potomac TRACON may have been able to get him direct, and that’s exactly what happened.
So, was all of that frustration really necessary? Was center ATC just being difficult? Probably not. They were likely just doing their job, and had their hands tied.
Washington Center, in this situation, can be likened to a bouncer you hired to keep things outside your party under control. He’s standing on your porch, making sure people enter and leave only through the door. Sure, he hears music and laughter and good times inside the house, but his focus is on the outside. He doesn’t own the house, and can’t make decisions for what goes on inside.
Once the party guests make it inside, you, as the host and homeowner, can decide to relax any restrictions. If they ask for a drink, are you going to keep them thirsty or grab ‘em a cold one out of the cooler? If they would like to sit down, will you keep them standing or let them plop on the couch? It’s your house, and you have the power to grant requests within it.
Potomac TRACON, being home to the SFRA (Special Flight Rules Area) encompassing Washington D.C., its airports, and its governmental prohibited areas, is one heck of a complicated house. Washington Center controllers aren’t expected to know all of its inner workings. They just need to know how to get aircraft in and out of it.
Once our pilot was within Potomac’s airspace, though, the Potomac controllers had full control. It’s their house, and they can be as flexible as their own internal procedures allow. The TRACON controller analyzed the pilot’s request, determined that it was a viable request, and approved the shortcut.
In this case, things worked out in the pilot’s favor. With a different controller facing a different traffic situation and different weather, he may not have been so lucky, wound up going via Baltimore, and diverting for fuel. There is just no guarantee. Just like we controllers can’t see what’s going on in your cockpit, the pilot doesn’t know ATC’s big picture.
Meant to be Bent
There’s a saying in ATC: “Anything can be accomplished with coordination.” Fact: a huge portion of the time controllers spend talking isn’t with aircraft, but coordinating with other controllers in their own or in outside facilities. If a pilot requests something that doesn’t adhere to ATC’s internal procedures, we can coordinate with other controllers to see if we can legally bend the procedures to accommodate the request.
While the Washington Center controller did deny the pilot’s shortcut, it’s very possible that he called up the Potomac controller and told him of the pilot’s request. The call could be as short as, “Potomac, Center, Cirrus 7CD requesting direct destination when able.” That simple message tells the TRACON controller the Cirrus wants a shortcut.
My LOA with the TRACON next door says I have to feed them IFR cruising traffic at 9000 feet. If you advise me you really need 7000 to avoid icing, I can call up the other controllers with an APREQ—an approval request—such as, “APREQ Piper N3AB at 7000 to stay below icing conditions.” If they can approve it, then I amend your cruising altitude in our computer to 7000, and hand you off to them at that altitude.
That ATC saying doesn’t quite hold true for all situations, though. It should actually be: “Anything within reason can be accomplished with coordination.” There are just some non-negotiable things beyond the controller’s, uh, control.
Yesterday, the same TRACON had a military bombing mission taking place and shut down the southern half of our boundary with them. I had to flat out say “unable” to aircraft requesting that southern routing and reroute them all to the north. If a plane’s going to get whacked out of the sky by a stray one thousand pound bomb, it won’t be on my watch. There’s nothing within reason to discuss.
Sometimes there are no options that work for everybody. What if you’re entering my airspace from the south but I’ve got that bombing down there? Perhaps, like our other pilot, you can’t accept the new northern routing due to fuel concerns? I still can’t let you go south. Big bombs going boom, remember? You gambled and can’t get what you want, and you’re not able to take what I have to offer.
I’ve advised many a trainee controller that our job is essentially problem solving. Pilots or other controllers present us with a situation. We have to quickly determine a number of solutions to it and see one through to resolution.
Problems usually have multiple fixes. Just like there’s almost always an alternate route you can drive to work if your primary is closed for an accident, so too there are usually other options when flying. But, like the drive, those other options are slower and longer.
I personally don’t believe in a no-win scenario. There’s always a way out. Sometimes, it may just not be the ideal one. To avoid that bombing mission, I issued you the northern reroute. That’s the right thing to do on my end. Protecting yourself from a minimum fuel scenario—also the correct thing to do—you said you were “unable” the new route.
So what’s plan C? I’ve told you what I can and can’t do, but I can’t fly the airplane for you.
Do you need some holding vectors to think things over? Here are some turns. Do you want to land now at the nearest airport in my airspace and top off the tanks? Here are some vectors to get you to the nearest AvGas pump. Do you want to proceed on the northern route, but land somewhere halfway between your present position and your destination to refuel? Sure. Give me an airport identifier and I’ll clear you there.
You are the pilot in the command. ATC can suggest available options, but you make the call, and ATC will do what it can to make it happen.
Know what you’re facing. The first part of dealing with risk is recognizing it exists in the first place. When our original pilot accepted the longer Baltimore clearance, he knew he’d taken a chancy bet on a shortcut. Thankfully it went his way. If it hadn’t, he knew his own limits and the limited options available from ATC. When presented with a difficult choice, he did well.
Like our pilot, when you’re in command, always consider multiple outcomes before taking a bet on a shortcut or reroute. It may have worked the last time you tried, but there’s no guarantee it will next time. While you can’t plan for every eventuality, knowing when to say “Unable” can keep you out of dangerous situations. Likewise, ATC can only do as much as their regulations, coordination, and LOAs allow.
The solution may have to be an unpleasant compromise for both parties, but there will be a solution.
Biting The Hand
Negotiating reroutes and shortcuts can be a frustrating experience. Nonetheless, don’t forget: always be professional. It doesn’t matter if you just fly for fun in a 1970’s beater Cessna, or you’re left-seating a Boeing. Flying demands respect, both for the skillset and the people on both sides of the frequency.
Sure, it can be more difficult to keep a professional attitude when you’re getting knocked around between cloud layers and are enduring your fourth reroute of the hour. Please remember that reroutes and such are nothing personal. We’re just trying to do our job, and there’s usually a pretty solid explanation for what we’re doing. We can’t have you bust another controller‘s airspace or violate a flow restriction just because you want to go in a different direction
I’ve worked tens of thousands of pilots over the years. The vast majority are courteous, even when I’m giving them bad news. I really don’t like to say no, but I won’t hesitate when it’s necessary to maintain a safe and legal operation. I’m well aware that when I tell a pilot “Unable” or “I need to reroute you….” that usually means more fuel costs, a longer flight, annoyed passengers, and other inconveniences. It sucks.
Once in a while I’ll come across one who thinks ATC is personally out to get him, and takes it out on me or my coworkers. No amount of yelling or sarcasm on the radio will change the outcome. It just makes the pilot sound like a fool to everyone on that frequency.
Here’s something to think to about: the controller you’re talking to now may not be the reason you’re in a sticky situation. He may, however, be the one who can help you out of it. If someone has the power to help you when the opportunity arises, do you want them in your corner or not? —TK.
Tarrance Kramer likes saving pilots time and money whenever he can. He’s an air traffic controller in the southern U.S. Perhaps you’ve negotiated a reroute with him.