Audio: Aer Lingus Pilot & JFK Air Traffic Control Get Into Argument

Filed Under: Aer Lingus

This post is intended for aviation geeks, since I imagine most others would have no clue what’s going on.

If you ever listen to air traffic control for fun (who doesn’t?!), you’ve probably noticed that controllers in the NY area can get a bit feisty. I can’t really blame them, since they have some high-pressure jobs. Sometimes I can’t blame them for losing their cool, like this audio click between a JFK ground controller and Air China 981:

While not to that level, @AirlineFlyer noted an interesting situation that arose between an Aer Lingus pilot and a JFK controller on Sunday evening. EI104 was an A330 departing from New York to Dublin.

The weather in New York wasn’t great. After takeoff the Aer Lingus plane was instructed to turn left, though the pilot said he couldn’t do that because of a cell of weather, and would need to maintain the runway heading for another 15 miles.

In an irritated tone, the air traffic controller responds that the weather is “light,” and that he has six categories of weather, and the heading he gave the pilot was through the lightest category, and that he has had no adverse ride reports.

At that point the air traffic controller puts him in a holding pattern, and it seems to me like the pilot feels like he’s intentionally not being given the most direct routing. As the controller gets ready to hand over the pilot to another controller at New York Departure, the following conversation happens:

Pilot: “Before I go, we didn’t create any situation we flew the aircraft in a safe manner, and my boss will be in contact with your boss. Good day.”

Air traffic controller:”Understood, I just… I do understand and appreciate that, but again, you know, there’s not much… you’re on the runway and you’ve taken a clearance, and accepted a departure clearance and you’re seeing that weather straight ahead, on a runway, and everybody off that airport is turning left, I mean there’s not too many options here in New York.”

Pilot: “It’s not my first day in New York, and it’s not my first day in an aircraft. I did what I do to do. Good day.”

Here’s the full audio along with the flight path, if you’d like to hear it:

What makes this interesting is that clearly there’s some tension, though I’m not sure either party is necessarily in the wrong here:

  • The pilot’s first job is to fly the aircraft safely, and if s/he doesn’t feel comfortable with the instructions given by air traffic control, they need to be given an alternative. You can’t hold that against the pilot, even if he was perhaps being cautious.
  • The air traffic controller is really busy, and New York airspace is also very congested, so options are limited in terms of routes they can give pilots. It’s not surprising that the air traffic controller was annoyed, because from his perspective this was an instruction that every other pilot was okay with, except the Aer Lingus pilot.

So the way I view it, it was an interesting back-and-forth. I’m not sure the “my boss will talk to your boss” conversation at the end was really necessary, since it didn’t seem like anything that bad happened.

What do you make of this exchange?

  1. Hmmm. Not terribly comfortable that pissing competitions happen when we are oblivious to it and our lives are in the balance.

  2. Maybe they arRe ex boyfriends.. They sound liike ex boyfriends.


  3. This shit needs to be automated. I can’t understand why it has not been automated already. No more ATC.

  4. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.
    The pilot has the ultimate authority in the moment and ATC’s instructions are just suggestions if the pilot seems the situation to be unsafe to his aircraft. Sure, there may be judgement later on, but the pilot was in the right in the moment.

  5. MD- you are right but also . WRONG! ATC instructions are not…suggestions. You must comply with ATC instructions in the IFR environment. If you are unable you must say so, if ATC cannot accomadate, you must declare an emergency.

    PIC has ultimate control and authority and may deviate from any FAA rule , but that does not mean ATX instructions are deemed suggestions. Poor wording.

  6. The pilot has command of the safety of his ship, passengers, and crew. It is not ATC job to lecture a captain who has told him he wants a different routing due to a storm cell he deems unsafe. It doesn’t matter who else turned left.

  7. Pretty shocked at how much chat and indecision there is from JFK Tower – LHR are busier yet manage to be more civil and organised.

  8. Two professionals disagreed on something, reluctantly sought a compromise and eventually resolved the situation. Seems like a good thing to me.

    As an aside, never piss off ATC. I remember going into an airport in Africa once and a “western” pilot ahead of us was being very condescending with the controller (correcting his pronunciation, questioning his vectors, etc..). The controller put him in a hold and said he was “#2 for arrival, after the traffic 37 miles behind you”. We laughed as we eventually passed him 8000 feet above us flying in circles.

  9. @MD, someone (you) should learn what controlled airspace is…

    @Alan, that is not JFK tower, but JFK departure. The controller is located at a TRACON-facility, far away from the tower.

  10. I do listen to the ATC, especially from NY as they tell it like it is.
    This was not so much out of the ordinary, and both pilot and controller, were “right”.
    But with severe weather restricting much of the airspace, in the vicinity of three major airports, the ATC options were very limited.
    It seems the Aer Lingus pilot did not appreciate that.

  11. Anyone who has any clue how ZNY DPs and gates work (or has ever been in a NY TRACON groundstop) will understand that when you miss your slot or your routing, you need to WAIT (often a long time) for a new clearance. This was the in-air version of that. The EI pilot was clearly in the wrong (not for requesting to avoid the weather, that’s absolutely his prerogative, but for the attitude and the demands).

  12. The Shamrock pilot DID get him self into the situation were he needed to hold, the controller tried to give him the most direct routing at the beginning, by feeding him WX info, but the pilot opted to trust his weather radar, wich is perfectly okay but then bad mouths ATC when he can’t get a DCT to GREKI… stupid and unprofessional

  13. Some interesting radio callsigns.. Some of them are gone, but great names…\

    Citrus – AirTran Airways
    Waterski – Trans States Airlines
    Dynasty– China Airlines
    Cactus – US Airways
    Shamrock – Aer Lingus
    Speedbird – British Airways
    Xanadu – AirAsia X
    GoCat or SmartCat- Tiger Air
    Springbok – South African Airlines

  14. GREKI is not just a waypoint— its a specific Departure Procedure (SID) . The “GREKI’s) are the planes on the procedure

  15. Oh JFK are assholes.

    Its common to take off and then request weather deviation. Happens all the time.

    I once asked for weather deviation in descent, and was told by the controller that there was no weather on his screen, therefore I couldn’t have the deviation….

    After several others subsequently asked, he then randomly starts having a go at me for not reporting Weather to him.

    I replied: “I did ask for weather deviation, maybe that was your first clue”

    It’s f’ing absurd to be told by sometime sat in his office having a cup of team that there’s no weather.

  16. “My boss will contact your boss” is ridiculous. If you want to have your boss contact the guy’s boss, just do it. No matter who was wrong, this desire to get the last word in by a professional is pretty unseemly. You’re in the middle of weather over a busy airport.

    If the ATC guy really did something wrong, then follow procedure. In the end, you’re the pilot of a transatlantic heavy aircraft and he’s an ATC guy and everyone knows, and everyone listening certainly knows, your relative positions in the world of air travel. I see absolutely nothing accomplished by a professional who is flying an aircraft with hundreds of souls on board getting in a “just before I go” zinger whether ATC deserves it or not. Just useless. Fly your plane. Get your pax home safely. Take whatever measures you need to when you land.
    Be a pro.

  17. I am an air traffic controller at a busy European airport (more aircraft movements than JFK), and I know first-hand how difficult these situations are. But with this kind of weather you are trained to expect the unexpected, and have to quickly be able to adapt to changes without being a b**ch about it.

    Personally I think the tone of the ATC was extremely unprofessional, as you’re the one sitting in a room on the ground whereas the pilot is the one in the air truly responsible for the passengers’ lives. Yes, go-arounds, weather deviations, etc. are annoying in a busy situation, but you can never hold it against the pilots, because safety is priority number one. You adapt to the situation and make sure everything goes smoothly, as, like I said, that’s what you are trained for. If I would start being a smart-ass and telling the pilot off for not flying through some weather because “others did as well” and “my radar shows it’s only light”, I would be in big trouble with my superiors. There is no excuse for punishing a pilot for trying to fly safe, and that is what the controller did here.

    Therefore, it is completely justified that the pilot makes a report of the incident, because this was not acceptable behaviour from the controller. It is also common recommended practice to let the other party know that you will make a report, hence the final comment from the pilot. Ok, the manner in which the pilot communicated this was a bit unnecessarily in-your-face, but it was nowhere near as hostile as the tone of the controller. The behaviour of American ATCs, especially in New York, are too often an embarrassment for the rest of us.

  18. If interested, you guys should read this to better understand New Yorkairspace

    @Mike, while your perspective is certainly interesting, it does not show an understanding of the unique features of New York airspace. Once an aircraft diverts from a filed route, it loses its path to a north gate, and needs to wait for a gap to get back into the routing. That will require a hold. Can read up on the New York DPs and gates in the above pdf. Pilot was a prick (again not questioning his choice to route around the weather, just everything that happened afterwards), ATC did his job.

    Oh and @Kevin and @Ryan, GREKI is in fact a waypoint. It is one of the gates for the GREKI6 departure which seems to be the current one, but also can be used for other DPs and for vectors to the GREKI departure gate.

  19. As a side note “Cactus” was originally the call sign of America West Airlines before they were absorbed by US Airways who was in turn absorbed by American.

  20. Makes me scared to fly out of JFK on any airline at anytime and I am doing so in September. I think we are all lucky there have not been more accidents.

  21. The “Ill tell my boss bit” seems to me a bit petulant – these guys working in a busy Centre are stressed enough without comments that can only serve to wind them up – let the pilot report it when he gets on the ground. Seems to me like self important pilot who likes to have the last word

  22. Hahaha. That’s what happened when you give power and autorithy to someone with low educational background. They always felt they are the most important person [pause…] in the world.

    Hey! I’m ATC controller! I’m american! I’m a new yorker! Respect me or suffer the consequences! You didn’t do as I said, I’m holding your flight path.

    Oh but please don’t report me… my boss gonna be mad…. I’ve had bills to pay…

    Amusing that so many people commented to defend this atc controller. Maybe he is not alone eh? Oh well… got the whole nation of freedom and democracy behind him…..

  23. Regarding Air China ground exchange; the crew expresses extremely poor comprehension of English. They probably should not be flying outside of China.

    As to Air Lingus exchange for anybody who knows that airspace as an aviator will not be surprised. This is extreemly congested and complex airspace overlying three mayor airports and several minor but also extreemly busy corporate and private airports. Any deviation from departure procedure may require landline coordination between different sectors of ATC. AL crew knew the weather and had a departure clearance putting them into the weather they deemed hazardous. They should have declined the clearance on the ground. They would have probably lost their departure slot. One airborne they try to fanangle their way around the weather breaching the flow of traffic. The controller accommodates the deviation with a few circles. What is a big deal? This all should not be a problem for the crew. Seems last comment by AL crew was counterproductive and unprofessional.

    NY ATC controllers are good. They can be short and intimidating. It’s just a nature of the beast. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere. NY.

  24. The controller was not busy. The controller was making a “hollow” statement.
    NY TRACON should be embarrassed and ashamed. Weak.

  25. @Mike (the ATC person here)

    fully agree with your post, about ATC’s behaviour being appalling and unacceptable!

    I was horrified to hear how he talked the the pilot in the first place, not to mention his unwillingness to cooperate with the pilot normally…

  26. Long time after but a few observations. Just because previous aircraft have accepted a routing and successfully navigated through a weather system does not mean the next aircraft will, even if it has previously accepted a routing – see Delta L1011 accident at DFW 1985 where all previous arrivals had landed safely. Next, the controller, busy as he or she maybe, is sitting comfortably on the ground whilst the crew, whose weather radar is closer to the activity and likely more effective than the controller’s, aided by Mk 1 eyeball, have the final responsibility to ensure a safe flight. The problem here is not being put in a hold, though this may have aggravated the crew, but the controller’s attitude that he knew better than the crew and his inference that he was punishing the flight for causing him aggravation. NYC airspace is not the busiest in the world but is complex and given the proximity of three major airports has restrictions which weather can complicate. Nonetheless the controller could have been more professional, accepted the professionalism of the crew in rejecting the routing based on the actual circumstances rather than the acceptance and experiences of earlier traffic and had he responded in that way would not have drawn the comment from the crew.

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