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.”
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.
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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