Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Controller pet peeves: Part 1

People often ask if the job of being a controller is really as stressful as they've heard. In a word, yes. At least some of the time, anyway. We often joke among ourselves that this would be a great job if it weren't for all the pilots and airplanes. This is a topic that comes up regularly in the tower cab, mostly because we have to deal with it each and every time we plug in at a position. Pilots say or do things that run the gamut from mildly annoying to downright dangerous. These are things that we see and hear all the time, and they're counterproductive for all involved. Lest this devolve into a rant and rave, I'll limit myself to one of the biggest complaints for most of us at LAX:

Sloppy Radio Technique: As controllers, one of the primary things that we're graded on is our radio phraseology. Nearly all of what we say on a regular basis has standardized wording that we are required to use. There is an entire staff of people downstairs whose main function seems to be listening to and critiquing the recordings of our work. And everything is recorded: 24/7/365. But it's not enough that we say everything correctly. We're also held to account if the pilot doesn't respond correctly. Here at LAX, there have been several recent situations where controllers were cited for a loss of separation simply because the pilot didn't use his callsign when he acknowledged an instruction. Never mind that we direct an instruction to a particular aircraft using its callsign, nor that it's the same voice on the radio in subsequent transmissions. Example:

Controller: Air Carrier 123, hold short of Runway 25 Right.

AC123: Roger, we'll hold short of Runway 25 Right.

We have had controllers get in trouble for the above exchange even though the airplane did exactly as it was told, simply because the pilot didn't use his callsign while reading back the hold short instruction. Here is another scenario in which the controller was cited for an error despite the fact that the airplanes were legally separated:

Controller: Skypest 456, traffic twelve o-clock, two miles, the preceding Beagle Flight RJ climbing out of 2,200. Report that traffic in sight.

Skypest 456: We got him.

Controller: Skypest 456, maintain visual separation, contact SoCal departure.

Skypest 456: Switching, good day.

The controller got tagged with this because he didn't get the Skypest pilot to use his callsign when acknowledging the visual separation instruction.

Sometimes, it's like pulling teeth! Read on . . .

We are also required to get complete readbacks of runway hold short instructions. Here's another example (and I'm not making this up - I personally heard this happen):

Controller: Big Bus 321, at Foxtrot cross Runway 25 Left and hold short Runway 25 Right.

BB321: Cross the left and hold short of the right, Big Bus 321.

Controller: Big Bus 321, I need you to verify hold short Runway 25 Right.

BB321: Hold short of Runway 25 Right.

Controller: Big Bus 321, I need you to use your callsign.

BB321: Big Bus 321.

Controller (trying not to let his exasperation go out over the frequency): Big Bus 321, I need a complete readback of the runway hold short with your callsign.

BB321 (sounding very petulant): Hold short of Runway 25 Right at Foxtrot, Big Bus 321.

See how much time that wasted? Time is the most valuable thing a controller has. Time spent doing something like this is time not spent on doing something else - like getting another airplane (maybe yours) moving. We actually lost a departure hole while the controller messed around with this pilot. Because our tickets are on the line, you can expect this sort of thing to continue as long as pilots don't say exactly what we need to hear them say. The part that makes controllers unhappy is that the pilots are not required to do so - except by us, the controllers. Although we can (and do) get written up for not using the correct phraseology, there isn't a corresponding process for educating the pilots - who, by the time they get to LAX, ought to know better!

So, for all you pilots out there, please use your callsigns - even in subsequent transmissions with the same controller. Otherwise, you can expect us to hound you for a good readback.

Okay, despite my pledge not to turn this into a rant, it's becoming dangerously close. So I'll save the rest for another time.

Postscript: This was written and posted on Tuesday; when I returned to work on Thursday, I learned that LAX Tower has enacted a new procedure which adds the following to the ATIS: "Use your callsign with all readbacks." This procedure will be in effect for the next 60 days in an attempt to reduce the problem; now if we could just get the pilots to actually pay attention to what it says on the ATIS . . .


  1. Here's one pilot who agrees with your rant! You and I have probably talked a time or two, as I drive something with an Eskimo on the tail. Sloppy radio procedure isn't only unprofessional, it's downright dangerous.

    (I will admit that I am one of those guys who says "see ya" when leaving the freq sometimes...I don't know if that is also one of your pet peeves)

  2. Steve -

    Thanks for the comments. I personally do not have a problem with the "seeya" and "good day" type acknowledgements of frequency changes, and often tag something of the sort onto the end of the frequency change instruction. The real issue is when there's a control instruction that needs pilot acknowledgement in order to be used for separation purposes. It's long been the policy that an instruction that goes unacknowledged is no better than one that was never given in the first place. Runway assignments and hold short instructions have required readbacks from the pilot for some time now. The recent shift in enforcement attitude is one of clarification: The readback has to include the acknowledgement and the callsign. One without the other doesn't count, even if it's the same pilot's voice in all transmissions with that airplane, and even if that's the only plane on your frequency. I see the point, but if we carry this to the logical extreme, then we'll get to the day when I have to say "LAX tower" in each and every transmission, even after we've established radio communications with a given aircraft. I probably shouldn't even write that -- it'll give somebody ideas . . .