You Can’t Get There From Here: On Going (and Being) Direct

Whenever we fly from point A to point B, many of us use the Victor airway system, and we pick a route that offers us the smallest increase beyond a great circle distance, or the highest groundspeed … and these days, perhaps the widest berth from unfriendly airspace. In addition, particularly in the IFR world, there’s often more to it. Yes, an instrument-rated light airplane pilot has the benefit of being “in the system“, and as such is accorded the same privileges given to an airline captain. Yes, ATC is there for your convenience and protection, and not the other way around. But why is it that so often the routes that we’re assigned are so circuitous, and if we ask for a shortcut (and we have the necessary avionics to follow through) the answer is “unable“? The answer is simple, conceptually. It’s so simple that you probably already suspected it. It’s the circumstances that can stand a little explaining.

The answer of course is that the relatively high speeds of aircraft combined with the inherent uncertainties of networked radar sites, as well as the existing structure of the National Airspace System (NAS) and ATC procedures (and a healthy respect for built in safety factors) dictate certain separation minima. Of course, the very system of VOR facilities that covers the country implies the familiar airway web that interconnects them. In addition there’s the fact that one person can manage only a small chunk (or “sector“) of airspace and until only recently, the historical precedent was that the most time-consuming job for a controller has been calling another controller downstream to coordinate a hand-off.

When an altitude or route change is involved, even more coordination becomes necessary. To see one of the ways the “system” evolved to help save time, you only have to look in the back of the Airport/Facility Directory at the section for Preferred IFR Routes (and if you’re in the northeast corridor or southern California beehives, the section for Tower Enroute Control) to see what I mean. Someone figured out a long time ago that it’s easier to herd cattle when they’re not roaming all over the Ponderosa, and the same thing is true with aircraft. Naturally, in addition to local traffic constraints, events further along your route may conspire against you. There might be a live MOA, deviations around weather, impromptu changes from a local Traffic Management Unit, or even from the Central Flow Control Facility in Washington. And that isn’t even considering “bandwidth” and other communication system or computational capacity issues. All it takes is one trip to the radar room, seeing the skies from the other side of the microphone, to appreciate what goes on behind the scenes.

As instrument pilots know, you can file whatever route you like, but often the Center’s “Host” computer has other plans. And when it’s busy, unless you’re on fire, “getting direct” is unlikely. (For a further discussion on how you can play by their rules, see the article Playing the Game, With Their Toys.) This holds true on an en route scale as well as a local one. In addition to having a pre-established route structure, there are also procedures between individual ATC facilities that trim down lengthy coordination efforts. These might include Center-to-Center, TRACON-to-Center, as well as those between adjacent approach control facilities. You can’t look them up in the green books, but the controllers sure use them; they’re known as letters of agreement, or LOAs. Here for example is the first page of an actual LOA between the Philadelphia tower and the New York TRACON. In the case of Philly, there are also others with the surrounding towers at Baltimore-Washington International, Atlantic City NJ, Reading PA, Allentown PA, the Dover RAPCON, etc.


The simple summation is that there are different “corridors” for different directions. So this is the Way of Things. Until Free Flight and other advanced initiatives become the norm in our NAS, the bottom line is that what we pilots consider a simple request is actually … well, sometimes, it ain’t so simple. Controllers know darn well that we value our time and our money, whether we’re flying a Bonanza, or a bizjet. Perhaps there’s someone slower up ahead, and your request for “direct” would compromise their “miles in trail” restriction. Possibly you’re on a busy airline jet route and the good of the many must outweigh the wishes of one Citation captain — whatever. Speaking for myself, I realize I won’t usually have the big picture, so I often shrug my shoulders and roll with it.The result is that even on a local scale — and PHL is just one example — there are only certain ways you can usually get in or out. Depending on whether they’re taking off and landing to the West, or if they’re in a somewhat atypical “East flow” configuration, the game plan basically looks like this:

All that said, it still never hurts to inquire. There’s an implicit give and take involved; it’s not all “take“. You can’t expect good service unless you ask ATC for what you want. And controllers can’t read minds, so you do have to ask. There is a bright side to all this for us small fry. Here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Ask: Fortune favors the audacious. (That doesn’t imply impudence or disrespect.) Just don’t be bashful. Learn to combine crisp professionalism with politeness, and just ask ATC for what you want.
  • Probe: Any given ATC clearance is just one possible means of getting you on your way. Unless it’s just what you wanted, consider asking for better. (You don’t buy a car at sticker price, do you?)
  • Inform: Giving the controller the reason for your request can be effective, because people are often more obliging when they can understand or relate to what’s going on.
  • Deal: If you can’t do what they want you to, offer another solution. They’ll warmly appreciate someone willing to meet them halfway. (And “unable” doesn’t mean “impossible“; if you’re apprehensive about shock cooling, or airsick passengers, use the “U” word.) Important: If they ever use the word “expedite” or “immediately“, forget this rule!
  • Persevere: If ATC denies your request, don’t roll over and play dead. (The next sector controller might have a slot for you.)
  • Lead: Never hesitate to do what you feel you must. Never renounce your command authority, and don’t be intimidated. Again, the system is there for your convenience and protection, not the other way around. If safety is absolutely the issue, you can always sort it out later, when you’re safely on the ground.
  • Confront: If you unconditionally conclude that the controller is being unfair or irrational, it’s time to make your day as PIC. Asking for operating initials and the telephone number of the watch supervisor cuts to the chase in a hurry — if it’s warranted.
  • Learn: If you’re really a regular TRACON traveler, go and visit. If you ask, you’ll learn about arrival corridors, meter fix crossing altitudes, and all manner of very useful details on local “adaptation data” that will probably save you time, and make their lives easier as well.

BOTTOM LINE: Sure, we’d all like the red carpet treatment, and no one takes much of a shine to being treated like a hick from the sticks. (Actually, there may be times when direct might not work for you, even if it’s offered. Don’t think so? If it meant bucking a headwind at a higher altitude, or an offshore Victor airway like V44, the “shark route” between the South Jersey coast and Long Island NY, then you’d probably have to turn it down.) And yeah, we can’t all be Frank Sinatra up there, ATC isn’t Burger King, and you can’t always have it your way. It’s a bit like life though: if you want a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm…