Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is Air Traffic Control (ATC) Using Procedures To Deliberately Discourage Pilots From Making Requests?

John F. Kennedy Taxi Chart

Is Air Traffic Control (ATC) using procedures to deliberately discourage pilots from making requests?

I believe Air Traffic Controllers are trained to use phraseology that discourages pilots from making "requests". This question arises out of my experience while scheduled to fly the non-stop flight out of John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport to Tel Aviv, Israel a distance of 5,667 miles.  The airplane I was flying was a Boeing 747-200 which has a maximum gross weight for take off of 775,000 pounds. It would carry in excess of 430 passengers plus 21 crew as well as more than 350,000 pounds of fuel.
I was flying this flight on a regular basis.  It would depart at 1030 PM and required a total flight time in excess of 10 hours and thirty minutes. At this time of the day, with wind, weather and runway conditions as no factor, the runway in use by JFK was established by the prevailing noise abatement policy to be runway 22R. Runway 22R is 11,351 feet long and runway 31L is 14,511 feet in length.  Runway 31L is 3,160 feet longer than Runway 22R.

The majority of the times I flew this flight,  the gross weight of the aircraft was at its maximum of 775,000 pounds.
Boeing 747-200
I had considered the question - what would be the most demanding maneuver an  airline captain could be called upon to perform? The answer is - A high speed, high gross weight aborted takeoff! I think most of you would confirm my conclusion as correct. As a result, I would request the use of the longest runway for my departures to Tel Aviv.

On each of my departures from JFK, I would have my co-pilot request its use on our first call to ground control.  In every case, the response from the ground controller was the same,  He would say, "The runway in use tonight is runway 22R."  I would then direct my co-pilot to let the controller know we were aware of that fact but we were still requesting runway 31L for departure.

The response from the ground controller was always - "There will be an indefinite delay for you to use runway 31L." What is the definition of an "indefinite delay"?  I discovered there is none.  As a result, I decided to accept the delay (whatever it was as I could not get an estimate from  the ground controller) and I would finally hear the words I wanted to hear from ground control - "...taxi to runway 31L."

I would than taxi to runway 31L and when I got there discovered I was number one for takeoff.  My "indefinite delay" turned out to be zero.
JFK Tower
This same sceniero was repeated many times in my remaining flights to Tel Aviv. I began to arrive at the conclusion that the air traffic controllers were trained to use their responses to my requests in an effort to discourage me from making them. As only the pilot in command determines which runway is used for  take off, it did not cause me to change my requests. What do you think?Updated Wednesday, December 28, 2011.


  1. You are absolutely correct.

    Remember the guy sitting at the ground control mic has nothing to worry about if the take off roll goes south!!!!!

    Dave (vagabond)

  2. David M. PhillipsMarch 7, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    You are correct, Rick.
    It's your ship and your seat at the board of investigations if anything goes wrong.