Flying Stories
So you want to fly around us, eh?
June 10, 2013
10

About three and a half hours into the flight from Los Angeles to Boston, the radio monotony was broken by an interesting conversation.  Since I have no desire to mention another airline by name, I’ll just call them Anonymous Airlines flight 123.

“Center, is our route going to take us through Canadian Airspace?” the pilot asked.  As soon as I heard it, I knew what was coming next.  The Canadians charge a fee to U.S. operators that fly through their controlled airspace.

“Uh, yes it does.” His voice raised up on the last word.  The controller knew what was coming next, too…

“We’d like to be re-routed around that airspace if you can work it out.”

The controller’s tone turned angry: “AnonAir 123, you really need to stop doing this… All you guys ask for this at the last minute and we have to make all kinds of evasive moves to clear traffic.  I don’t know if you need to talk to your dispatchers to file differently, or what… but, it needs to stop.”

“I understand.”

The simple reply seemed to further annoy the controller.  If he was trying to draw an argument, the crew wasn’t taking the bait.

“Turn right heading 120.” he barked.

Very professionally, the pilot read back the clearance.

Then, radio silence.

In their flight deck, they were probably discussing if it was really worth asking for the clearance.  In ours, we were debating if the extra fuel to fly around the airspace cost more than the Air Traffic Control fees to fly through it.  We also wondered if there was something in their OpSpecs preventing them from entering the airspace.

The controller returned with a hint of spite and said, “AnonAir 123.  I just got off the phone with Toronto.  You were too close… they’re going to charge you anyway.”

“Uh, okay.” said the pilot.

Ouch.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit I laughed.  It was funny, but I felt bad for them at the same time.

We pressed on via our flight plan and spoke to a couple of Toronto Center’s controllers.  Our dispatchers file the most efficient flight plan for winds and our guidance is to stay on the planned route.

Later, after checking in with Boston Center, we heard the following clearance: “AnonAir 123… fly mach .80 or greater.”

It was shortly followed by a clearance for us to turn thirty degrees off course.

I’m not an air traffic control expert, but it sure seemed that since AnonAir 123 went all the way around Canadian Airspace, the spacing between our aircraft shrunk.  We were both approaching Boston at different angles and spaced too closely.  As a result, they were being asked to burn more fuel by flying fast and we were being delayed with vectors.  Their decision was financially impacting both airlines.

My hunch was confirmed when we followed AnonAir all the way into Boston.  We touched down on 4R moments after their jet cleared the runway.  After holding short of 4L behind them, we stared at their tail all the way to the ramp area.  I’m sure they had no idea the guys behind them heard the earlier conversation.  It would have been way too unprofessional to mention it on the ground frequency.

Yesterday, when I decided to write this story, I fired off a text message to a friend who is a dispatcher for one of the major airlines.  During our conversation, I learned that the ATC fees are proportional to the time in Canadian airspace.  The computer system at her airline factors the fees into the total cost of the route.  The fee if AnonAir had stayed on their route?  According to my friend… about $55.

Their airplane burns jet fuel at an average rate of $33/minute.   Since they consumed extra fuel flying and still paid the fee, their request actually cost their airline more money.

About thirty minutes later, I received another text.  My friend checked with a dispatcher friend at AnonAir. (Aviation is a small world.)  She forwarded his reply to me: “Many of (the pilots) think we aren’t ‘allowed’ to fly into Canada at all because we don’t allow it on our charter flights.  They’ve misread that as ‘no Canada ever.'”

I cannot put myself in their flight deck to fully understand why they made the request.  Sounds to me like they were trying to do the right thing but didn’t think it all the way through.  Or, they were simply misinterpreting a rule.

Either way, I’m glad I was able to hear it.  It broke up the monotony of a long flight and led to a better understanding of air traffic control.


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About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 10 comments

  • Mark says:

    Thanks for the article. I run a Canadian FBO with flight school and NavCanada charges an annual fee for small aircraft versus a mileage charge for the airlines and large GA aircraft. I think for us it’s around 90$/year for each of our single-engine Cessna fleet and around 250$/year for the twin.

    It is an interesting business model for air traffic control to charge the users instead of having its funding be supported by the tax paying population. Thoughts?

    • I definitely have mixed thoughts about it. The private sector tends to be a little more innovative with technology than the government. However, I see a lot of safety issues if things start getting outsourced to the lowest bidder. I also fear pilots avoiding atc to save fees. So, in the US, I think we’re probably best to stick with a tax funded system.

      Thanks for the comment. I hope your business is doing well!

      • YYC_Dispatcher says:

        Renewed Pilot,

        Thank you for your fantastic blog, I found it a few weeks ago through a link on another pilot’s blog and have enjoyed reading through it from the start to current posts.

        One big difference to note when talking about funding between Canadian ATC and American ATC is Nav Canada (the controlling agency in Canada) is not a publicly funded company. Nav Canada pays for all of their expenses (including new control towers, etc) through their user fees and does not depend on public funding. It sounds like Anon Airlines needs to clarify their policies with their flight crews and their dispatchers.

        YYC Dispatcher

        • Thank you for your input and your kind words. I am aware of Nav Canada’s private funding but chose not to mention it in this post. (Mostly, to keep the story brief.) So, thanks for bringing it up. I didn’t intend to leave readers with the impression that only US operators are charged. Everyone must pay in your type of system.

  • Cedarglen says:

    Thanks for the great post. IMO, there is probably a bit too much ‘dime fussing’ at AnonAir. Their dispatch and operations folks should have all of this worked out before the itty bitty or huge airplane leaves the ground. Save truly Major weather changes or in-flight issues, the captain and his partner should NOT be concerned with this trivia while driving. Without a doubt, this is a Dispatch and/or operations issue and not part of the crew’s already full plate. I’m glad that you find it entertaining. I sure hope that captain was not summoned for a Carpet Dance over what looks like $55. Had it been me, I’ve have skipped the meeting and maybe even considered delivering 5,500 one-cent copper-clad zinc cent’s t o the CP’s office. And I don’t want to know who “AnonAir” really is. If I must vote here, I’ll go with the crisp response from ATC. While funny to a degree, does this sort of thin contribute anything to safety? Grr.

  • lexy says:

    I don’t use social media but wanted to comment and tell you that I enjoy your blog and have subscribed in my RSS reader.

  • Christian says:

    Hello.

    I found your blog the other day and is now following with huge interest. Just wanted you to know, that you now have at least one reader all the way from Denmark 😉 Really enjoying reading about your pilot life! I have just started taking my PPL and in November I’ll start the ATPL theory. Can’t wait to become a pilot when I read about your everyday stories as a pilot.

    I hope my English is understandable. Trying to improve it. Especially the grammar!

    Best regard
    Christian!

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