The air traffic control (ATC) system plays a critical role in getting all private jet flights in the air. Flight delays can and do sometimes arise in areas that will be outside the control of your private charter service. Extreme weather is one familiar culprit, but so are ATC delays.
Delays of any kind are understandably frustrating. Charter flyers may find themselves especially confused by ATC delays — after all, why would the flight be delayed even if the weather is pristine at both your departure point and your destination? In the interest of a clear charter experience, we’d like to answer some common questions about air traffic control and weather-related delays.
What’s the role of the ATC system in private jet flights?
ATC regulates the departure and landing times of most private air traffic. Businesses that fly above 10,000 feet must first file a flight plan within the ATC system, according to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). The job of ATC is to coordinate these plans and communicate with each aircraft to ensure they’re sufficiently separated from one another on the runway and in the air.
Air traffic control has complete authority over the movement of airplanes at most airports, for safety reasons and to promote efficient and orderly routing. Unfortunately, this means that private jet flights, like all other aircraft, can be at the mercy of ATC directives.
At what point does air traffic control delay a flight?
There are two important points at which your private charter flight is in touch with ATC: when the pilot or a dispatcher files the flight plan, and again when the pilot calls for clearance.
The person filing the flight plan will communicate with an FAA flight service briefer, and will often receive a weather briefing at the same time. The FAA flight service station may also relay an expected ATC delay to the pilot during this call.
Up to half an hour prior to departure, your aircraft pilot can call ATC for clearance — along with any special instructions for runway positioning, altitude, the course of the route, timing, and more. This is another key point where a delay could be announced.
What are some typical reasons for ATC delays?
- Aircraft Congestion Over the Airport: When there are too many planes in the sky over the airport, ATC may delay an outgoing flight to clear the way for more planes to land and reduce overall air traffic.
- Ground Delay Programs (GDP): Sometimes other delays at the destination airport can delay your departing flight. A ground delay is when your flight is being held on the ground by the ATC so that it doesn’t depart too soon and arrive before the arrival airport is ready for it to land. High-profile events (such as the Super Bowl) commonly use a GDP to spread out arrival times and minimize in-air delays.
- Ground Stops: An equipment outage, heavy congestion, a burst of bad weather, accidents, or other unexpected events could lead ATC to initiate a ground stop on an aircraft (preventing departures and landing at a specific airport for a set length of time). These ATC delays are purely reactive — not strategic or pre-planned.
- Too Much Traffic in One Direction: It’s possible that too many flights plan to head in the same direction at the same time to ensure sufficient separation. When this happens, ATC may select certain planes to wait on the ground temporarily.
- Airspace Flow Programs: Weather conditions or other known and expected complications (such as construction) can lead the ATC to institute a flow program. This is a traffic management program that can lead to delayed departure, in-air holding patterns, re-routes, or changes to arrival sequencing to minimize or spread out air traffic.
Does weather play a role in air traffic control delays?
Your private charter company has limited discretion in deciding whether your aircraft can safely fly in adverse weather conditions, as they must continue to respect all FAA safety regulations. ATC delays can also be related to bad weather, which is entirely outside of the control of your pilot or charter service.
However, bad weather that might delay commercial flights does not always impact private jet flights in the same way. Operating out of FBOs and private or executive airports can mean that there are fewer flights to manage, which is simpler and safer in unfavorable weather. Charter flights also have more options—they can take off and land from a wider variety of airports, fly higher (above the weather), quickly change flight paths, and make in-flight arrangements to land at a nearby alternative airport.
Can a chartered flight service do anything to help with ATC delays?
ATC delays are often announced in advance and can be previewed via the FAA website. Your pilot can sometimes help you to plan for such a delay by requesting an “approved departure time” (also called a “flow time”), which may end up being the same as the original “planned departure time,” but could also be minutes or hours later.
Delays are sometimes unavoidable. However, your charter flight can help to minimize delays by submitting flight plans early, viewing Expected Departure Clearance Times (EDCTs) in advance, and helping you to plan accordingly.
Get in touch with us at Hangar 7 if you have any further questions about how ATC delays occur or what we are able to do to help you anticipate or plan around them.