ATC Etiquette: Listen Before You Speak


Communicating with air traffic control is a daunting task for many student pilots. In fact, just getting a single word in to JFK controllers is almost beyond my abilities as a professional aviator. ATC lingo is a rapid back and forth between pilots and controllers, and in busy airspace a little etiquette is in order.

Here’s the problem with radio communications: only one person can speak at a time. Weird things happen when multiple pilots or controllers key their microphones. Sometimes that awful static and squeaky noise comes on. Sometimes one person cancels the others out. In some cases, you actually hear both conversations at once.

We call this stepping on each other. It’s a common mistake usually followed by a quick “sorry, I stepped on you,” or more often than not, a grumpy pilot barks out the word “BLOCKED!”

This is why the AIM suggests that pilots should listen after they change the frequency. But the training manuals fail to inform student pilots just what they are listening for!

Pilot / controller interactions have a pretty predictable back and forth. The controller typically gives an instruction, the pilot reads it back and the conversation is over. Sometimes we have heavier conversations such as a discussion about the weather or turbulence.

When we change frequencies, it’s important to listen for these conversations to end before checking in with the new controller. Wait for the natural breaking point in the conversation then key the mic and state your piece.

Sometimes the frequency is just too busy and that’s OK. If you can’t get through to the controller at all, just give it a few minutes. I find that ATC radio congestion comes in waves and you can usually wait it out. The controller knows you’re supposed to be on the frequency and they will call before you check in if they need to – no big deal. Just wait a minute or two and try again when the radio is less congested.

Again, when you need to talk to ATC, listen for any conversations to end then key the mic and talk.

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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

2 Replies to ATC Etiquette: Listen Before You Speak

  1. Keith Smith says:

    It’s amazing how prevalent a problem this is. This is an excellent post! I’ll be sure to forward to as many pilots as I can.

    We actually see quite a bit of this on PilotEdge, too, where pilots immediately check in on another frequency, right over the top of a conversation that was already in progress.

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