The Delicate Art of Negotiating with ATC

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If you don't like the clearance that ATC gave you, ask the controller for better and keep asking until you get what you need.

I'm an IFR junkie. Let me admit that right up front. I file and fly IFR on virtually every flight that extends beyond the local traffic pattern. Even if the weather is CAVU.

[The standing joke among my pilot-friends is that I file IFR every time I go to the toilet. That's a lie! I routinely piddle without a clearance, although I generally pre-file for a poop.]

Not Everyone Enjoys IFR

Because I enjoy IFR flying so much, it has always astonished me to discover how many pilots don't. Fully half of the 650,000 U.S. pilots with current medicals are instrument rated. But it seems as if an awful lot of those 325,000 instrument-rated pilots use IFR only as a last resort. They work hard to earn an instrument rating, only to let it moulder in their wallets while they fly MVFR.

The result is a continuing stream of VFR-into-IMC accidents by instrument-rated pilots that I read about every month when my copy of Aviation Safety or NTSB Reporter arrives. And it's not just weekend pilots who die trying to fly VFR when they should have been IFR. How about movie-pilot-extraordinaire Frank Tallman? How about the professional bizjet pilots flying Reba McIntire's band? How about the ones flying the top executives of a major southeast grocery chain? How about most of the commercial piston airplane operators in Alaska?...whenever I fly up there, I could swear I'm the only non-turbine IFR operation in Anchorage Center's airspace!

I've talked to quite a few IFR-averse pilots over the years in an attempt to determine why they don't enjoy IFR flying as much as I do. They always seem to blame ATC. A few of them clearly have an anti-authority bias: they don't like ATC telling them what to do. Most simply complain about being inconvenienced and delayed by less-than-optimal routes or altitudes assigned by ATC.

That's always seemed odd to me, because I fly IFR all over the U.S. in my Cessna 310 and very seldom feel inconvenienced or delayed or bossed around by ATC. My experience is that controllers usually give me what I ask for, and on those rare occasions that they don't it's usually obvious to me that there's a good (i.e., aluminum or granite) reason. Am I unusually fortunate? Or unusually tolerant? I don't think so.

Bax 'n Me

I got an interesting insight several years ago when I was flying IFR from my home base of Santa Maria, California, into San Jose International to connect with an airline flight. My right-seat passenger was one of the instrument-rated-but-IFR-averse pilots I've been talking about. You might have heard of him: Gordon Baxter, venerable columnist for FLYING magazine ("Bax Seat").

The weather was cloudy but not particularly low, the one-hour flight was unremarkable in every respect, my landing was acceptable, and we arrived at SJC with plenty of time to spare before the departure time of Bax's American Airlines MD80 flight. I noticed that Bax spent almost the entire flight scribbling copious notes in the little notebook that he carries everywere. I figured he was working on his next column. As I was unloading his bags from the airplane, I asked him what he was writing about.

"Your flying," he grinned.

"Did I screw up that bad?" I asked.

"Not at all," Bax said. "I just found it amazing to watch how you fly IFR."

"Really?" Bax probably learned to fly before I was born. "How so?"

"You're constantly negotiating with ATC. The flight was an hour of non-stop negotiations. I've never seen anything like it."

When I protested that the flight had been entirely routine, Bax pulled out his notes and reminded me that I'd:

  1. parried an altitude restriction by requesting a VFR climb,

  2. asked for a higher cruising altitude when my filed altitude turned out to be bumpy,

  3. asked for an RNAV-direct shortcut to trim a few miles from a dogleg in the airway, which ATC turned down but countered by offering a different shortcut that was very nearly as good,

  4. declined a speed restriction by countering with an offer to maintain visual separation from a slower aircraft ahead on the localizer, and finally

  5. requesting a side-step to a parallel runway to shorten our taxi time a bit.

I agreed with Bax's recounting of the flight, but suggested that any experienced instrument pilot would have done more-or-less the same as I did. Bax disagreed.

"I've flown with hundreds of pilots of all experience levels. Most of them obediently do what ATC tells them to do, and gripe to me about what rotten service they're getting. You actually seem to believe that ATC is there for your convenience and safety. You're constantly telling ATC what you want or what you need. You're constantly negotiating for a better clearance. When they give you an instruction that you don't care for, you're not at all shy about proposing an alternative solution. And you actually seem to enjoy the whole process. I can assure you, Mike, that your attitude is unusual. I find it fascinating."

The System Is There For Me

I don't subscribe to FLYING, so I don't know whether Bax ever wrote a column about that flight from SMX to SJC. But I think Bax hit the nail on the head about why I like flying IFR so much and many other pilots don't.

I truly do believe that The System is there for my convenience and safety. God bless America for making it so. Simply by filing an IFR flight plan, my puny "flib" and I magically become First Class Citizens of The System, and are entitled to all the rights and privileges accorded to a $50 million jetliner and its 30,000-hour Captain. I get a big kick out of knowing that I can push a little black button on my control yoke, say a few words into the mike, and make The System work for me, rather than me working for It.

I like the whole the process of IFR. I love the give-and-take with the controllers, and negotiating to get what I need. One controller at Bay TRACON jokes that my radio callsign is "N2638X, Request". But I figure you can't expect to get good service unless you ask ATC for what you want. Controllers have many talents, but mind-reading isn't one of them.

Besides, controllers are very well paid for what they do, and most of them love their work and wouldn't want to do anything else for a living. Being such happy campers, I figure most controllers won't object to an occasional special request from a flib. And in fact, most of them seem to go out of their way to cooperate. [Except for that one time in Baltimore, but that's another article...]

Negotiation One-Oh-One

Rule #1: Don't be shy...ask ATC for what you want.

More often than not, you'll get it. Here's an example related to me by a friend who is a controller at Bay TRACON:

Propeller-driven aircraft departing eastbound out of Oakland are always restricted to 9000' on V244 for about 40 miles until they depart Bay TRACON's airspace. This is to protect the corridor for opposite-direction arrival traffic between 10000' and 12000', a fact not readily known to pilots. The 9000' restriction may be fine for a Skylane, but is quite inconvenient for a pressurized twin whose cruising altitude is FL250.

One day at a pilot briefing, a Cessna 414 pilot asked my controller-friend if there was any way to avoid this restriction. The controller asked if the pilot could climb to cross ALTAM intersection (20 miles east of Oakland) at 13000'. The pilot said it would be tight, but he could. "Tell that to the controller," suggested my friend.

He called my friend a week later to say that every time he departed Oakland, he was assigned 9000', to which he replied "if it helps, I can cross ALTAM at 13000'." He reported that he got 13000' every time.

Rule #2: Treat every ATC clearance as the opening bid in a negotiation.

Unless it's exactly what you were hoping for, don't hesitate to ask for a better deal. If you were buying a house or an airplane, you probably wouldn't meekly accept the seller's initial asking price...you'd make a counter-offer. Same goes for dealing with ATC:

ATC: Twin Cessna 38X, cleared to Oakland via present position direct Paso Robles, V113 Panoche, V301 SUNOL, direct. Maintain 12000'.

38X: After Paso Robles, request RNAV-direct BORED.

ATC: Twin Cessna 38X, Restricted Area 2504 is hot, surface to 15000'. I need you on V113 until about 10 north of Paso Robles to remain clear of the Restricted Area. Expect RNAV-direct KARNN when clear.

38X: Sounds good, thanks!

Another example:

ATC: Twin Cessna 38X, descend and maintain 8000'.

38X: Do you need me at 8000' right now, or can you make that pilot's discretion?

ATC: Twin Cessna 38X, cross 25 miles southeast of Woodside at and maintain 8000'.

38X: Thanks, 38X will cross 25 southeast of Woodside at 8000'.

Rule #3: If ATC turns down your request, be persistent.

Don't hesitate to make the same request of the next controller Keep in mind that your controller has limited sector boundaries, and typically is relieved from his position every 20 or 30 minutes, while you're there for the duration of the flight. Use this to your advantage. Even if one controller tells you "no", the next one is very likely to be more cooperative.

If your request can't wait and you believe the controller is being unreasonable, don't hesitate to flex your muscles a little:

38X: Center, Twin Cessna 38X is experiencing pretty serious turbulence here at 8000', request higher.

ATC: 38X, expect higher in 30 miles.

38X: Center, 38X can't wait that long. We're getting a really bad ride. How about a VFR climb to 12000'?

ATC: 38X, unable. Maintain 8000'.

38X: We'll gladly accept a turn off-airway, a VFR-on-top assignment, anything to resolve your conflict...but we've got to get out of this turbulence! My passengers are panicking.

ATC: 38X, unable. Maintain 8000'.

38X: Center, 38X requests your operating initials and the telephone number of your watch supervisor.

(pause)

ATC: (new voice) Twin Cessna 38X, turn right 30 degrees, vector around traffic, climb and maintain 12000'.

38X: 38X turning right 30 degrees, leaving 8 for 12...and you have my wife's eternal gratitude!

Rule #4: If you're unable, say so...and make ATC a counter-offer.

Unlike the pre-strike days, very few controllers nowadays are pilots. What little they know about aircraft performance and capabilities, their knowledge is usually limited to pressurized turbine-powered aircraft. So don't get mad at the controller if he asks you to perform an unreasonable maneuver. Just tell him you're "unable" (perhaps the most useful word in the entire pilot/controller glossary), and offer him another way out that works for you:

ATC: 38X, reduce to 90 knots, expedite descent through 5000.

38X: 38X is UNABLE to slow down and expedite descent simultaneously, BUT we'd be glad to accept a delay vector (turn around a hold, early turn-on, etc.).

Don't confine your use of "unable" solely to decline ATC requests that are physically impossible to perform. It's quite legitimate to use "unable" to decline a request that you feel might be abusive to your engine(s) or uncomfortable for your passengers. Keep in mind that the controller is not going to help you empty the sick- sacs or pay for the cracked cylinders.

The only clearances you should be reluctant to decline are those containing the phrases "immediate" or "immediately". In controllerspeak, "immediately" means "if you don't do what I'm telling you right now, you're gonna die." Best to do it first, and quibble later. Controllers seldom say "immediately" unless they really mean it.

Rule #5: It sometimes helps to give ATC the reason for your request.

If it's something the controller can identify with, it'll often make him much more cooperative. Since most controllers are not pilots, don't give them lectures on shock cooling or the difference between Vle and Vlo. Since lots of controllers have spouses and kids, an airsick wife or a crying kid make excellent reasons. I recall one flying to the Reno National Air Races one August in my 310 with my A&P mechanic, his wife, and their newborn baby. Reno TRACON is justly famous for their slam-dunk arrival procedures:

38X: Reno Approach, Twin Cessna 38X would like to start down now.

ATC: Twin Cessna 38X, maintain 13000', expect lower in 25 miles.

38X: Approach, 38X is unpressurized and we have a 3-month-old infant on board. I'm afraid that if we have to make a steep descent into Reno, the baby might develop a painful ear block. Can you help?

ATC: 38X, stand by. Break. Southwest 47, turn left heading 150, climb and maintain FL230.

SW47: Southwest 47 leaving 12000' for FL230, turning left to 150.

ATC: Twin Cessna 38X, descend and maintain 11000', expect lower from the next controller in 7 miles.

38X: Twin Cessna 38X, leaving 13 for 11, and I really appreciate it!

In this particular case, the "baby on board" story was actually true, but I've been sorely tempted to use that one when I was all alone in the airplane!

Rule #6: Don't hesitate to use your command authority.

FAR 91.3 says you're the boss. Never abdicate your command authority to someone sitting in a warm, comfy, dark room on the ground. No matter what the controller says, do what you have to do for safety of flight.

You need not formally declare an emergency to exercise your emergency authority. Do not hesitate to declare if you need priority handling. Otherwise, just do what you have to do to stay safe, and keep ATC informed of your actions and intentions. If the controller feels you should be treated as an emergency aircraft, he's perfectly capable of doing that without requiring you to make a formal declaration.

Never be intimidated if a controller asks you "are you declaring an emergency?" Simply pretend he asked "do you need priority handling?" and calmly answer yes or no as seems appropriate.

38X: Center, 38X needs to turn 30 degrees left for weather.

ATC: 38X, unable to approve deviations north of course at this time.

38X: Sorry, center, 38X has no alternative. Be advised that we're flying heading 060 to steer clear of a cell.

ATC: 38X, I can't approve that. Are you declaring an emergency?

38X: No sir, we're just flying heading 060 as required for severe weather avoidance. We'll keep you advised of subsequent heading changes.

ATC: I say again, '38X, deviation to the north NOT APPROVED!

38X: Well, sir, then you have a problem...perhaps YOU should declare an emergency. Let's get one thing very clear: I'm not flying into that thunderstorm!

ATC: [Urgent instructions to other aircraft to get them out of your way.]

The FAA Administrator is entitled to request a pilot to submit a written explanation of any deviation from compliance with ATC instructions. In a situation such as the one portrayed above, your chance of being asked to defend your actions is almost nil.

Never be intimidated, and always do what you have to do. Ol' Bax had it right: The System is there for your convenience and safety, not the other way around.