Aviation In Canada

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Use of Other-Than-The-Active Runways

Depending on what region you fly in, or perhaps what airport you fly in, the term in the title may mean very little to you. In Moncton Center, "Active Runway" doesn't mean much to us, for a couple of reasons.

At uncontrolled airports, there is no such thing as an "active runway" in the traditional sense. Only a "preferred runway". Pilots have the authority to determine which runway they want to use, as there is no control agency directing traffic flow at the airport.

At a controlled airport, however, the tower is responsible for directing traffic flow. I can hear it now. Of course the pilot is in the ultimate place to make the decision on the operations of his aircraft, and as such may determine which runway he wants to use. At a controlled airport, however, he must be "fit in" to the sequence in order to get what he wants. This means he may have to wait for his runway choice, and it may be a long time depending on traffic. In our FIR, we only have two control towers, one at Moncton and one at Halifax, both international airports. The good news for those who like to save a few minutes on the choice of runway is that the people in both of these towers are normally quite willing to mix and match. It often serves ATC better, too. In fact, the most common phrase heard when a pilot requests a runway is, "anything but the active." Does this sound like they make a poor choice on the active runway all the time? Not at all. Many of the pilots opt for a shorter taxi distance, or a more 'on course right from the runway' thought process.

The only part about this that I don't like is that maybe we, as a group, are a little too accommodating. The other day, for example, an airliner requested direct to an IF serving runway 06 when runway 11 was active at Moncton. Another controller relayed the request, and the clearance for the fix to the pilot. When I spoke to the pilot later and told him I would check his request for 06 with the tower (they had numerous VFR aircraft close in which may have made his runway request impractical), he responded with a less than happy tone, stating that he was "already proceeding direct to CASID for runway 06." I understand that, but the active is 11, and other traffic may not permit his request, hence my statement attempting to indicate that runway 06 was not yet approved by the tower.

Magically, though, all the local VFRs exploded away from the circuit, each to his own area of the sky away from the airport. This made 06 available to him afterall. While I felt happy to accommodate him, I also felt like my point was being lost when I cleared him for his visual approach on 06. Did he understand that he was getting his runway not because he asked for it or made his point clear in his second transmission, but because traffic patterns now permitted it? Will it mean that he thinks he can push a little harder next time and get what he wants again? Perhaps being so accommodating isn't all it's cracked up to be. Will that change my method of operation? No. I was born and raised as an ATC in Halifax International's control tower, and the attitude between the tower and the terminal there was always to give a pilot what he wanted to the best of our abilities. I still hold that tenet today, as do most of my collegues in Moncton Center.

My point? Please understand, pilots, that while we try to give you what you ask for, it can't always be done. Sometimes we don't get the notice you would want to have if what you want is unavailable, and sometimes it becomes unavailable on short notice. Other times the situation changes after we start you out for what you want, and it becomes unavailable. If we tell you something isn't available, there is probably a reason for it. It may not be obvious, and the situation may change again and make it seem like it could have been available when the moment of truth arrives. Personally, I think we should all be thankful that, to date, computers are not directing the flow of air traffic. Requests likely would not be entertained in such a hard-coded world.