Tips For Crossing The North Atlantic

Credit: Image credit: Alamy/Volodymyr Maksymchuk

Prior to the pandemic, the North Atlantic was the busiest airspace on the planet. As signs point to an easing of travel restrictions, traffic numbers have begun increasing. In 2019, the region experienced more than a half-million crossings annually or about 1,300 per day. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced some business and airline traffic that previously filed Great Circle routes to Asia to seek alternatives that often include much longer routes, such as over the Atlantic. 

During a recent NBAA webinar focused on tips for business aviation operators flying the Atlantic, Shawn Scott, founder of Colorado-based Scott IPC, an international business aviation procedures training company, offered crews tips for effectively re-engaging with their oceanic crossing experiences.

Not surprisingly, most North Atlantic procedures haven’t changed, which represents some good news. The bad news is that there are issues that have not disappeared. 

“Pilots are still rushing to get their oceanic clearances,” Scott said. 
Rushing leads to some serious mistakes. The 2021 Event Report recently published by the North Atlantic Central Monitoring Agency (CMA) notes that as North Atlantic traffic increases, so do the number of errors air traffic control (ATC) reports per day. 

As 2021 ended, Scott said the CMA reported "158 events resulting in 284 errors. Some aircraft committed more than a single error." Of the errors, 28% were from aircraft filed as general (private) or non-scheduled U.S. and UK-registered aircraft. The remainder was split among the airlines, the military and ATC coordination mistakes. 

They also are divided between Gross Navigational Errors, aircraft operating at least 10 nm off course laterally, and Large Height Deviations in which the aircraft exceeds their assigned altitude by at least 300 ft. Strangely, most aircraft involved in these errors were also datalink equipped. 

Errors can be further categorized as pilots who do not adhere to their route assigned by the ATC and fly the route they filed, Strategic Lateral Offset Procedure (SLOP) mistakes and incorrect weather avoidance errors. 

The reason some of these errors did not result in an actual loss of separation is nothing more than pure luck and the vast amount of empty airspace over the North Atlantic. 

In one example, a Falcon 7X crew was issued this clearance via controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC): “When ready, climb to and maintain FL430. Cross 62N030W at FL430, report level FL430.”

The aircraft crew responded with a Wilco message 32 min. before their estimate for 030W. As the aircraft approached 030W, it was still at FL420. Air traffic tried to call the aircraft on the normal ATC frequency as well as sent a free-text CPDLC message to say: “Confirm you will cross 030W maintaining FL430.”

ATC heard nothing in response and the aircraft crossed 62N030W at FL420. Iceland Radio finally sent the aircraft another message: “Climb now FL430.” The crew acknowledged and climbed to FL 430.

The 2021 report shows that “general aviation--both business aviation and charter operators--accounted for a disproportionately high number of errors given the percentage of utilization of the airspace," Scott says. 

He believes good standard operating procedures could have prevented nearly every error assuming a flight department uses an up-to-date international flight operations manual with procedures designed to eventually eliminate these errors. 

A Recurring Problem

Specifically, one recurring problem is the crew being unaware they were flying the route they filed rather than the route assigned by ATC. 

This occurred 43 times in 2021 alone. In addition to being in a rush, one or both pilots may be so used to thinking they know what clearance they will receive based on what they filed. That confirmation bias makes them see what they want rather than what is printed in the clearance message. 

Scott says these errors could be prevented by using a robust clearance entry procedure in the FMS that does not focus on the filed route and demands each pilot match the actual clearance with what goes into the FMS. 

Another area of concern is the frequency with which some pilots botch something as relatively simple as a SLOP maneuver, a final effort used by most aircraft to avoid a head-on collision and possible wake turbulence encounters.

Using SLOP, the crew typically flies a mile or two to the right side of the course centerline using increments as small as one-tenth. However, one crew typed in the wrong digits and flew the entire crossing 10 mi.  right of course. 

Preparations For Storm Season

With the approaching storm season in the Northern Hemisphere, crews should refresh themselves on how to handle a weather deviation if they’re unable to immediately contact ATC or if ATC is unable to approve the route change, Scott advises.

The crew also should be prepared to tell ATC they are deviating around the weather for safety. 

It might sound something like, “Shanwick, Gulfstream 89 Golf is going to deviate 20 miles right of our original course for the next 50 miles.” 

If the deviation is more than five mi. from the original course, completing the maneuver should include an altitude change depending upon which direction the aircraft is headed. For eastbound aircraft, for example, pilots are expected to climb 300 ft. if the deviation is to the right, and to descend 300 ft. if they deviate left of course. Similar procedures apply when headed westbound. Interestingly, an air traffic controller caught most of these mistakes before they became a serious threat. 

Scott also mentioned two important airspace updates. 

One update that took effect on March 1, 2022, opens additional airspace at FL330 and beneath for random routing in what once belonged to the North Atlantic Tracks System.

“There are also plans to raise the ceiling of RVSM airspace [over the North Atlantic] to FL450,” Scott says, although no implementation date has been announced for that change.