The Long and Short of ATIS

ATIS, or Automatic Terminal Information Service, was originally conceived as a time-saving method of disseminating critical, predominately weather-related, information to aircraft interested in arriving or departing from a particular airport.

It’s basically a short recorded message which plays on an endless loop. Remember the days when you had to call a movie theater and listen to a recording to figure out the show times for each film? That’s what we’re talking about here. Pilots listen to the ATIS recording before departing or arriving at an airport in order to learn the wind direction, sky condition, altimeter setting (aka barometric pressure), and runway(s) in use.

ATIS is only available at airports which have an operating control tower. The recording is typically updated every hour and is labeled with a letter. The first ATIS of the day is called “Alpha”. The next hour, when they update it with the current information, it is referred to as “Bravo”. The following hour it becomes “Charlie”. If the weather changes significantly in less than an hour, it will receive a ‘special’ update. When the weather is poor or changing rapidly, updates can happen every few minutes.

In theory, ATIS makes sense. Why require a tower controller to report the weather to every aircraft which contacts them? It’s much easier to simply record that information, and allow the pilot to obtain it on their own time.

Sadly, as with most things in which the government is involved, over time the ATIS broadcasts tend to become bloated with more and more information. The worst example I’ve seen is my home field of John Wayne Airport. If you want to hear it yourself, call (714) 546-2279. I just transcribed the current recording:

John Wayne Airport information Juliet, 1626 Zulu special, wind calm, visibility one-zero, ceiling one thousand five hundred overcast, temperature one eight, dewpoint one three, altimeter two niner niner zero, ILS runway one nine right approach in use, landing and departing runways one niner right and one niner left, caution for a crane three hundred forty one feet MSL two thousand feet right of runway one niner right and a crane one hundred twenty seven feet MSL southwest runway one nine right adjacent to the tower, check Notice to Airmen for any impacts to instrument approach procedures, airport surface detection equipment in use, pilots should operate transponder including mode charlie on all runways and taxiways, all aircraft read back all taxi and hold short instructions, all departing general aviation aircraft contact clearance delivery prior to taxi, IFR aircraft use frequency one one eight point zero, VFR traffic use frequency one two one point eight five, advise on initial contact you have information Juliet.

I’m surprised there’s nothing on there about using caution for birds in the vicinity of the airport. That’s usually part of the ATIS as well.

Anyway, imagine a slow, computerized voice reading all that. Now imagine that it’s happening while you’re operating an aircraft like a spiffy new turbo-normalized Cirrus SR-22 which rents for $350 an hour. The ATIS at John Wayne is currently one minute and thirty seconds long, which means every time you listen to it, it costs $8.75 if the engine is idling.

Oh — did you miss part of it? Then listen to it again. Now the tab is up to $17.50. I’ve had students who had to listen to it three or four times in order to get all the information. And we wonder why flying is so expensive!

It’s even worse if you’re in the air. Sure, you’re already running the engine anyway so it’s not costing you any extra money. But when airborne, your other resources — namely time and attention — are heavily taxed. Your time and attention are critical because you need to be doing other things when you’re approaching an airport. Talking to controllers, running checklists, configuring the aircraft, descending, slowing down, watching for traffic, looking for the airport, and so on. If you’re an instructor, you need to be teaching — and this all happens at a critical transition phase where instruction is important. The length of the ATIS gets in the way of all that.

If you’re flying in instrument conditions, the ATIS is an even bigger obstacle. Not only is the information contained in the ATIS more important to you, but instrument approaches are very high workload environments for the pilot, especially near an airport like John Wayne. The communication frequencies are congested because everyone’s IFR, the controllers are busy, you can least afford to miss a traffic call, you’re being vectored, and are probably setting up radios, GPS, and briefing the approach. This is exactly the wrong time to take a minute and a half out of your day to listen to a pedantic recording with a lot of information you don’t need. If the TRACON controllers were smart, they’d petition to have ATIS broadcasts reduced to the absolute minimum. I guarantee they’d get better responses on the radio from pilots, especially low-time IFR guys and instrument students.

Speaking of controllers, at smaller airports the ATIS is often recorded by a human voice. The problem there is that the recording is made by the tower controller. Yeah, the same guy who’s controlling traffic. If he’s busy and/or there’s a lot of data to put on the recording, he will tend to talk very fast, because the longer they are occupied with making that recording, the longer that guy’s air traffic is not being dealt with. That makes the ATIS hard to understand. Around here, El Monte is well-known for suffering from this issue.

Over time, pilots have developed ways of mitigating the time- and money-sucking effects of a long ATIS:

  • listen via phone before engine start
  • listen via handheld radio before engine start
  • listen to only part of the ATIS
  • don’t listen to it at all
  • don’t listen to it, but tell the controller you did
  • ask the controller to read you the weather portion
  • listen to two frequencies at the same time

I have seen these and many other strategies used by pilots. Each of these shortcuts has a drawback. Some are safety issues, others are simply inconvenient. But the larger issue is that these shortcuts shouldn’t be needed at all. The ATIS is simply too long.

Heck, even if you listen to the ATIS, sometimes you haven’t listened to it. How is that possible? Let’s say you just dedicated 90 seconds to listening to the recording (although between asking for a frequency change, tuning radios, etc it’s probably closer to two minutes). You report that you have “information Alpha”. The controller says that information Bravo just came out, so report when you have information Bravo. Great. Now you have to listen to it again. Oh, probably only the weather portion changed and everything else is the same. But what if it’s not? Suppose a navaid is now out of commission, or runway lighting is affected, or there’s a disabled aircraft on a taxiway? I’ve seen all those things happen just at John Wayne.

Yeah, ATIS is a problem. The solution, however, is elegantly simple: shorten it. Not just a little, I mean cut that thing down to the bone. Absolutely vital information only. In most cases, that means weather. Take a look at the bolded portion of the ATIS transcription. If I were king of the world, that’s all you’d hear.

This is not an answer requiring a Ph.D, so you might wonder why someone at the FAA hasn’t seen the light and taken action. First of all, the FAA doesn’t care how much money or time you waste on the ground. If they did… well, let’s just say aviation would be a much different place. Second, as a large government agency, there is a fair bit of “CYA” thinking. If it’s on the ATIS, then the pilot as been advised of it and the FAA is not responsible for non-disclosure. You hit a bird on departure? “Hey we told you about the birds”. Third, the controllers don’t have to listen to the ATIS a dozen times a day, so they aren’t aware of the problem. Fourth, controllers are no longer pilots. In the old days, a high percentage of controllers were also pilots. That was a good thing, because they saw every aspect of air traffic from both sides of the coin. Today, very few controllers are active pilots, and it shows. I can readily identify a controller-pilot just by how they talk on the radio.

There is another reason that the ATIS stays as long as it is, and it’s called “D-ATIS”. Digital ATIS is a transcribed, digitally transmitted version of the ATIS audio broadcast, usually accessed on a computer screen in the cockpit. It’s mainly the airliners, business jets, and other big money operators which have access to D-ATIS. They are the ones with the deep pockets and political clout to have complaints about the ATIS addressed. The problem is they don’t have to listen to it! It’s transmitted to a screen and they simply read it at their leisure. The rest of us simply suffer in 90-second-long silence. Try sitting in silence for 90 seconds. It’s a long time. Now imagine you’re traveling three miles a minute over the ground.

I have campaigned to have the ATIS shortened at John Wayne to no avail. I feel strongly that most of the information should be published elsewhere in writing and obtained as part of a preflight briefing. All that junk about the cranes, approach minimums, ASDE, clearance delivery frequencies, birds in the vicinity, etc. belongs elsewhere. Even the portion about the runways in use should be removed. Pilots are already aware of the runway configuration, and once they have the wind direction they should know which runway is in use. Especially at a Class C airport, the TRACON controller is going to be routing pilots toward the runway in use, and they even tell you which runway it is. “Head to Signal Peak for left traffic, runway 19 left…”

Shortening the ATIS would increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve safety. When something other than weather is added to the ATIS broadcast, it should be because a temporary situation has occurred where vital operational information needs to be disseminated to ALL pilots. Examples:

  • stuck mic on the tower frequency, so an alternate is in use
  • disabled aircraft on the runway
  • runway or taxiway closure (and even then, only until published in a NOTAM)

Reducing non-weather ATIS information to the absolute minimum ensures that the entire recording will be listened to and understood. Critical information will stand out rather than be lost in a stream of unimportant data. And when you miss a piece of the ATIS, you can take comfort in the fact that it will loop around again in 20 seconds, not 90.

So there it is. If you think ATIS is too long at your airport, do something about it. It’s a safety hazard. The longer we stay silent, the longer it’ll get and the longer we’ll stay silent while listening to it. Kind of a vicious circle, isn’t it?

  9 comments for “The Long and Short of ATIS

  1. Tyler Griffin
    June 29, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    If you’re collecting petition signatures, I’ll sign. . . .

  2. MJG
    July 2, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Hey, if you can do anything about this, you want to work on why computers take longer to boot as time goes on?

    When flying into an unfamiliar airport that I’ve had to divert to (and as a result may not have collected FULL pre-flight intelligence on), I’ve often found these long, rambling ATIS messages helpful. Of course that is only when I can get them far enough out to listen to it before I’m anywhere near the terminal area.

    Perhaps the solution would be xmit the extended information on a different frequency for those who need it. Something like when one hears “additional weather information available on HIWAS and Flight Service frequencies”… Those who have the need and the time can go get it while those who don’t, won’t.

    BTW – Love the Cirru$ analogy. Really drives the point home. I’m in with Tyler. If you are starting a petition for SNA, I’m on board.

    • Ron
      July 2, 2010 at 5:29 pm

      Computers needn’t take longer to boot. Just get a new one! (If only that worked with an ATIS…)

      The info on a long ATIS can be helpful, true. But I’d say 99% of the time, most of it’s wasted. If you have to divert to another airport and can’t get any info, advise the controller of the fact and they will help you out with anything critical.

      The best answer to the ATIS issue is probably to have something in the airplane which can receive D-ATIS. Problem is, that stuff is expensive. I think it might be worthwhile for airports with Digital ATIS to upload that date to someplace where it could be disseminated to those who have an XM datalink. We already get wx observations from the field — why not an ATIS readout as well? The data’s already it digital format, so just plug it into the system.

  3. August 30, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I agree that published NOTAM and other published information like the presence of wildlife do not belong on the ATIS, but the runway in use definitely does belong.

    A pilot preparing for flight should familiarize herself with the runway configuration and NOTAM for both destination and likely diversion airports. If a diversion is completely spontaneous then the call to flight services is, “XYZ diverting to Wherever due whatever, eta Wherever whenever, request you amend my flight plan, are there any relevant NOTAM for Wherever?”

    I’m fifteen minutes out of Wherever now and I have no idea what is their calm wind runway, the local policy on how many knots they ask you to take on the tail before they switch runways, or their standard landing and take-off runways. I need that on the ATIS.

    The ephemeral infomation goes on the ATIS. If it’s published somewhere, the pilot is required by law to be familiar with all available information before flight, so their butts are covered there. If they have extensive taxiway NOTAM that change over the course of the day, they need to set up a separate frequency for that.

    • Ron
      August 30, 2010 at 11:25 pm

      I appreciate your viewpoint, but I still feel that runway in use is not necessary. The wind direction will tell you all you need to know. If the diversion is unplanned, the fact that there is an ATIS broadcast in use means that it’s a towered airport and you can get the information you need from the approach controller or the tower. If the tower is closed, the ATIS recording tends to be much shorter (and, ironically, will no longer give a “runway in use”). In the U.S., at least, when the tower is closed, the ATIS basically say that and gives you the automated weather observation. If you really don’t have ANY information for the airport, Flight Service can give that to you, of course.

      As for calm wind runway preference, those are recommendations only. And often they ARE published in various pilot guides. Local policy on how many knots of tailwind “they” ask you to take is irrelevant. The PIC determines which runway he or she will use. If I’m flying the King Air, 10 knots of tailwind is nothing. On the other hand, if I’m flying my Pitts, I will not land with a tailwind unless it’s an emergency.

      • Jeff
        October 10, 2012 at 7:30 pm

        Runway in use can be helpful when wind info isn’t enough, for instance, when there is a steep grade to the runway.

  4. Pete
    September 16, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    As a student pilot, I must have lucked out that our tower’s ATIS is brief, weather-focused, and not too fast. Apparently that’s not always the case everywhere else.

  5. Rich
    November 3, 2010 at 11:36 am

    I started my primary flight training at SNA many years ago (c. 1977), and even then, one of my problems was understanding the controller. Part of the problem was nerves and not knowing what to expect them to say, but part of it was the rapid-fire instructions. ATIS is sometimes even worse, but I never knew why they spoke it so fast. Now I do.

    The synthesized voice goes much slower, of course, but can be just as hard to understand because it’s so unnatural.

    When I started instrument training, it really was a quandary when to listen to the ATIS when you can only listen to one freq at a time. Making it so long is a really safety hazard, I agree.

    Always enjoy your blog, Ron.

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