I’m Increasingly Concerned About Air Traffic Control, And Grateful For Pilots

A reader shares their experience Thursday afternoon departing Austin on United Airlines flight 298 to San Francisco. The flight was delayed, waiting on crew coming off of another aircraft. They boarded about 40 minutes late, and then waited around half an hour for a pilot that was still coming off of another flight. That’s when thunderstorms hit, further delaying the trip by an hour and a half.

They pushed back a couple of hours late. This reader was listening in on air traffic control. They were “fourth in line for departure on Runway 18L.” Three flights took off, then they waiting for three planes to land. “All three performed missed approaches, reporting tailwinds of 20-25 knots.” That’s when things got a bit thorny,

Around 7 pm, UA 298 was cleared for takeoff. Our captain told the tower he was seeing wind shear warnings and didn’t consider it safe to take off. I checked the weather radar and saw a large thunderstorm just south of the airport.

This is where tower safety comes in. The tower controller didn’t pause to assess conditions. Her tone implied, “If you won’t take off, we’ll move on to the next aircraft.” She told our flight to leave the runway and return to the back of the line.

The Southwest flight behind us received the same instruction, with the same outcome. Every waiting aircraft captain declined to depart. No flights took off for 20 minutes after our captain refused.

Twenty more minutes passed, the thunderstorms moved east, and a new tower controller took over. Departures resumed, but we were second to last to leave, right before the Southwest flight that had been behind us.

The reader didn’t mind the extra delay, grateful that the captain prioritized safety. The tower was willing to let planes depart, but more than one captain wasn’t comfortable doing so in the face of missed approaches and windshear warnings.

  • It is reasonable for air traffic control to assess the situation, see that it is within normal bounds, but for a pilot to decide they’re not comfortable even if takeoff is technically acceptable. 

  • Pilots have that discretion and we want them to! 

  • That’s part of the redundancy that helps make air travel safe. We need both sides to ‘turn their key’.  Air traffic control needs to clear takeoff, and pilots generally aren’t going to put themselves in danger, let alone their passengers, though we’ve certainly seen incidents of pilot error.

I wrote recently about air traffic control issues and I think we’ve been getting lucky.  I believe this is an area of greater risk than most people appreciate, and we need more than just ‘more taxpayer funding for air traffic control’ that airline CEOs are pushing for. We need to reform the FAA’s air traffic organization so that

  1. they aren’t regulating themselves, there should be a separate regulator from the service provider even if it’s just moving the responsibilities into separate agencies; and
  2. better management that’s able to drive forward technology improvements, FAA has been failing at technology upgrades for two decades and is far behind much of the world now.

Some pilots think that my criticism of self-serving lobbying by the largest pilot union means I’m somehow ‘anti-pilot’ and nothing could be further from the truth. Being a pilot is one of the best, coolest jobs on the planet, and I appreciate the pilots of the aircraft I’m on every single flight. This is doubly so because there are overworked humans without sufficient technology on the other side of the radio.

Given the risks and cracks we’ve seen in air traffic control, the role of pilots is even more important.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I agree with you Gary and it shows that even you realize experience matters. Air Traffic Controllers are human just like pilots. Both groups are highly trained and make few mistakes, but the perfect human has not been invented yet (I think I was close 🙂 ).

  2. The air traffic controllers do their job using the metrics and analyses at their disposal. The pilots are the actual boots on the ground, so to say. I see no fault here and the situation resolved itself as it should have. Better than forcing the situation.

  3. I watch a lot of aviation videos on YouTube, and I am amazed at how arrogant? hostile? a few of the ATC folks can be. They get all snappy and snippy with the pilots, seeming to want to override the decisions made by the pilots. I don’t understand it at all – they are not in cockpit! I understand there is an incredible amount of stress as a controller. However, some controllers seem to keep their cool and even inject humor into their communications. Maybe the FAA should provide more stress-relief for the controllers, like weekly massages or yoga classes or whatever. Or better yet, just upgrade/automate the entire ATC system.

  4. @ Gary — If they would pay the air traffic controllers $500k+ like the top pilots, I think much of the shortage and problems could be quickly resolved. With the right technology, airlines could conceivably cut half of all pilot jobs and let the tower land planes in the very rare case where the only pilot on a narrowbody became incapacitated.

  5. The situation you just described IS each side doing their part.
    It is not the FAA’s job to tell pilots to take off if they don’t want to – and they didn’t.
    It is pilots’ jobs to use their own training and company guidelines to determine whether they want to take off.
    And if the y do not want to take off, it is perfectly reasonable to ask them to get off the runway and allow someone else to make their decision.

    Having a delayed crew from another flight is not the FAA’s responsibility. The FAA doesn’t control the weather.

    There may be many reasons to criticize the FAA but this is not a viable example.

    And Delta execs talked about the FAA staffing situation yesterday and admitted that the FAA and airlines both let too many people leave during the pandemic and then could not ramp up hiring fast enough. Add in the long lead time to train air traffic controllers and the lack of differential pay for high cost areas like NYC and it is not a surprise that it will take time to restaff ATC facilities.

    And since you love to talk about competition, there is a much bigger impact from forcing airlines to reduce capacity or face lengthy delays for which they may be fined than anything else.

    The best investment in competition is to get ATC fully staffed so the maximum amount of flights that airlines want to operate can do so.

  6. @Gene,

    Wait you would ride on an airliner with one pilot ?

    Would you also ride on an airliner with one jet engine, or one fuel pump for each tank or one generator? Why has the manufacturer and regulators created multiple redundancies In systems but you think one pilot is ok?

    Not very sound logic, what if the single pilot is sick? Needs to use the bathroom, needs to stay awake, etc.

    Might want to think thru that thought process.

  7. Reminds me of the Providence fog incident where the Metrojet pilots told tower to pound sand until they knew the United plane was at the gate.

  8. I’m a very seasoned traveler and couple time gave me cold sweats. Both times I felt captain made the right decision. First was LAX-TPE on a SQ 747-400. As we were arriving, I was at the window, the rain drops were hitting the plane like bullets. Pilots had aborted the initial landing after the strong wing knocked us of the course. We went around he second time, and landed successfully. Funny thing was there were two other 747-400 took off before us to TPE. One was CI and the other was BR. They landed after our landing. I wonder if TPE used SQ pilots as a test before they let China and EVA land as they are both Taiwan based carrier? After landing and got on a taxi I realized a typhoon was about to land on Taiwan. The other was AA SNA to PHX on a 737-800 with strong desert wind that we ended up diverted to Tucson. I gave Captain prop that he had the Kahunas and tried 3 times before he gave up. I’d not even try.

  9. Look no further than the brains surgeon we have for Sec. of Transportation. Who by the by flys on a private jet. Between the trains and planes we’re in trouble.

  10. Do not complain about the present Sec of Transport when you compared to the last one–got the job because of her husband and her family connections in China

  11. @Terry Kozma – Taiwan, not China (big difference) and that’s not what got her the position. She was also a previous cabinet secretary (labor) and she served on the board of an airline as well. She had government leadership and industry-specific experience.

  12. @Gene – the issue with ATC employment isn’t predominantly one of pay, though it’s an inability to make specific regional adjustments to pay (they do not pay enough *to staff New York*). It’s also an issue of bureaucratic idiocy, it can take a year to transfer someone. And it’s an issue of misplaced priorities, the geographic constraints wouldn’t be such a big deal if they didn’t scuttle remote towers.

  13. @Tim Dunn succinctly & accurately nails the true tenor of the interplay between ATC and flight crew operating an aircraft.

    Yes, “safety” (in the broadest of terms) is a responsibility for ATC’ers. But ATC also entails maximizing the finite resources of concrete at airports & the airways between airports.

    ATC’ers may have rudimentary knowledge of aircraft performance envelopes in the static realm. Those folks will not possess the absolute knowledge & nuance needed for aircraft operations – hence, aircraft performance – in dynamic weather conditions.

  14. @1KBrad – “What would a 250-hour pilot have done?”

    I would hope that the 250 hr G.A. pilot flying under Part 91 would remain on the ground. I imagine the 250 hr pilot flying under Part 121, Part 125, or Part 135 would’ve offered input to the pilot in command (PIC).

  15. AND the DOT and FAA has just extended slot exemptions for federally slot controlled airports through the fall of 2024.

    The biggest thing to reduce airfares and stimulate competition is to properly staff ATC.

  16. @aaway: Gary often voices his opinion that a 250-hour pilot is fully qualified to fly Part 121.

    In this case, I fully expect a 250-hour pilot would have blindly accepted ATC’s clearance and attempted to take off (particularly if they were first in the queue). They don’t have the experience to just say, “No.”

    While a 250-hour co-pilot can certainly offer input to the pilot flying, the input wouldn’t have much value due to that lack of experience.

    Furthermore, the days of formal PIC and SIC are pretty much dead with CRM. It is supposed to be two equals working together to resolve problems–not a very inexperienced 250-hour pilot challenging a senior captain.

    The scenario in this article highlights why a 250-hour pilot in a commercial passenger jet is a recipe for disaster.

  17. @1KBrad – “In this case, I fully expect a 250-hour pilot would have blindly accepted ATC’s clearance and attempted to take off (particularly if they were first in the queue). They don’t have the experience to just say, “No.””

    Well, convince us just how many hours in excess of 250 guarantees good judgment in the operation of an aircraft? Please tell us how having in excess of 250 hours saved the crew and pax of Air Florida 90 or Northwest 255.

    But really, the “issue” of 250 hour pilots in Part 121 operations is specious since we don’t have 250 hour, Part 121 pilots. Frankly, I’ll concern myself with the issue when the FAA issues a NPRM for reducing the minimum tt required to occupy the right seat for Part 121.

  18. ATC is overwhelmed. I can tell you when pilots are chattering about better rides they have no idea how every response takes up precious seconds from the controller. I’m speaking for Centers. It’s too much to expect from humans to process the information in time to react. They are short staff but it’s time to put the blame square on the responsible. Back in the Obama days for the reason of equality, to this day anyone off the street can apply causing A high fail rate. Colleges that trained for ATC have shut their programs down partly because of this. FAA can only process so many and they waste millions on people that doesn’t know a wing from a landing gear. Do you want your next heart doctor to come off the street and chance his way to your operation table?

  19. I see comments on how 250 hours are enough pilot training to fly major airlines commercial flights while the FAA has required 1500 hours and European standards don’t require the higher number. Why not 100 hours instead or 400 hours or 500 hours? Citing pilot error crashes where the pilot had well in excess of 1500 hours does nothing to add anything meaningful to the conversation. Mistakes can be made at any number of hours but the hope is that having enough hours gives the pilot and the copilot enough experience to recognize problems correctly and figure out a fix. Having a lot of hours but not having flown many flights in snowy and icing conditions is a real red flag but it seems it isn’t an actual cause to change pilots. Complacency can make even 20,000 hours a useless statistic. A lot of the arguments are people making their straw man and then destroying it.

  20. @jns – “A lot of the arguments are people making their straw man and then destroying it.”

    My reply to 1KBrad was intended as rhetorical in the face of a flimsy premise. After all there are no 250 hour, Part 121 pilots.

    But, fair enough….as this pertains to the incident in question (“….he was seeing wind shear warnings and didn’t consider it safe to take off. I checked the weather radar and saw a large thunderstorm just south of the airport….”).

    I think it sensible a pilot would:
    (1) Rely on the clear meteorological clues he/she would’ve been taught in ground school.
    (2) Rely on observations made possible by various forms of equipage.
    (3) Have the knowledge to know the hazards and limitations of attempting to operate an aircraft in said conditions (learned both in the classroom and through simulation).
    (4) Know limitations on operations in said conditions as implemented by flight operations departments.
    (5) Know the limitations on operations in said conditions as specified by aircraft type/aircraft manufacturer.,

    and made quite logical, rational decision not to go – regardless of 250 hours experience, 2500 hours, or 25000 hours.

    And yes – you’re absolutely right – poor CRM and complacency can occur anytime which partially tarnishes the lens that flying experience is the end all to be all.

  21. Thanks for bringing this up, Gary.

    There is a great misunderstanding that air traffic control (ATC) is in some way responsible for flights taking off, landing, rejecting either, go-arounds, etc. In most of these cases that is simply not correct. Only the pilot in command (PIC) has the power to do that. If the pilot does not find ATC instructions to be the most prudent he can use the magic word “unable” and get alternatives. If ATC is unable or unwilling to provide options (sometimes load or traffic or weather dependent) the pilot can — without penalty — call for a go-around, a panpan, or a mayday.

    ATC has a tough job, but ultimately they are playing a fast-moving and sometimes monotonous video game. It doesn’t change much when 20-25kts wind is out there on the tarmac, and it doesn’t change if there’s low-level wind-shear on the departure rwy or corridor. Pilots, otoh, have the responsibilty of the entire aircraft, flight, passengers, and decisions relating to all those from that moment they start the walkaround at departure gate till the moment they sign the paperwork at arrival gate.

    Who determines if an aircraft is worth — the PIC. 14 CFR §91.7(b). “The pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight.” Who can override the PIC — nobody has that authority.

    Did ATC “punish” the pilots who wouldn’t take off by moving them to the end of the line — no, that’s just how you maintain a queue on the active. This eliminates overall congestion by allowing those whose parameters allow takeoffs to depart. You can be #4 for departure all day long but you don’t get to “wave people by” to maintain that spot. This isn’t a supermarket atmosphere and your “shopping cart” is hundreds of feet wide taking up more than half the width of the runway. The prudent option is to taxi off, parallel back, and rejoin at the tail of the line.

    Would YOU be happier doing a dangerous takeoff or would YOU be happier with a 20-90 minute delay — that’s for YOU to answer. The PIC made that decision for himself, the aircraft, the airline, you, and hundreds of similarly situated people onboard. On that flight his word is what counts, and even the pilot monitoring isn’t going to override that on the ground.

    FAA Commercial Helicopter Pilot
    Tucson, Arizona, US

  22. The whole point of instituting ATP mins for an FO in part 121 is ideological. The ideological goal is to not have an FO 121 position be the new aviator’s first professional pilot position.

    Ideally, that FO should have some professional experience before flying passengers on scheduled air carrier operations (121). Even if it is just flight instructing, banner towing, sky divers, or surveying for a year.

    Being held to professional standards after being a student pilot is a big step and you learn a lot. I don’t want the FO on my airline itinerary to be someone who just completed their commercial multi a few months ago. The job is not an apprenticeship.

  23. @aaway: I am less concerned about hours alone and more concerned with experience. At present, to obtain an ATP, one must:

    Be at least 23 years of age
    Must hold either:
    A commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating
    Or, meet the military experience requirements to qualify for a commercial pilot certificate, and an instrument rating,
    Or, a foreign airline transport pilot license with instrument privileges
    Medical requirements:
    Hold a 1st class medical certificate to act as Pilot-In-Command
    Hold a 2nd class medical certificate to act as Second-In-Command
    1,500 hours of Total Flight Time
    500 hours of Cross-Country Flight Time
    250 hours as Pilot-In-Command (PIC)
    100 hours of Night Flight Time
    75 hours of Instrument Training
    50 hours of In Class of Rating Sought
    Pass an ATP knowledge test
    Complete and pass an ATP-CTP training program

    I would add 100-hours of multi-engine time and 25-hours of aerobatics.

    So do away with the 1,500 hours (which can actually be 1,000 or 750 depending on where one learned how to fly) and retain the remainder. Doubtful anyone could obtain that amount of experience in less than 750 hours.

    @Gary Leff: The crew is a team. A 250-hour first officer does not have enough experience to be part of that team. As Johnny said, once on the flight deck, it’s not an apprenticeship.

    @Ehud Gavron: The days of PIC in commercial airline ops is long gone. With CRM, a first officer can and should override the captain if there is a safety issue. That’s how it works now.

  24. Why does AUS keep popping up with problematic ATC situations?

    From a serious lack of controlling leading to a near-collision between a 737 and 767 to an “uncontrolled” ramp letting aircraft push back right into the path of taxiing aircraft, this airport’s ATC is completely unequipped or unwilling to safely handle the recent growth in traffic the region has experienced.

  25. Former ATC here.

    This “event” is a non-issue. We make decisions based on the information we have and the factors we can control. It isn’t, and could never be, up to us to determine acceptable aircraft or pilot limitations in unfavorable conditions.

    Both recurrent and initial training specifically describe us as only being part of the picture, especially when it comes to weather. We can share the information we have including radar depicted weather, wind shear information, and PIREPs, but ultimately it is (and has always been) up to the pilots to use that as supplemental to the information they have and make a go/no-go decision for themselves. It’s the safest way and, IMO, the only way.

    Other ATC safety-related issues are another story. The AUS incidents referenced here – along with the BUR incident in February and what feels like countless others – aren’t related to this article. The controllers in this case their job, and the pilots did theirs. That’s how a functional safety-centric system is meant to work.

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