ATC’s Expect to Cross an Intersection

I was sitting on the jumpseat in the cockpit of another airline yesterday and I heard a radio exchange between ATC and the pilot working the radio for the crew. It sounded like this. (The aircraft call sign, altitudes and the named intersection are fictitious.)

ATC: “Airliner 167, at pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain Flight Level 190. Expect to cross Fuzzy at 8,000.”

Pilot: “Pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain Flight Level 190. Fuzzy at 8,000, Airliner 167.”

Do you have any heartburn with the pilot’s read back in this situation?

You know I wouldn’t ask that question if I thought his read back was perfect.

There’s a critical word missing in the pilot’s read back. It’s the word, “expect”. If I were the controller and I heard that read back, I’d immediately question whether the pilot might initiate a descent to 8,000 before I had authorized him to do so.

I don’t blame the pilot for how he crafted his read back. If you look in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) you’ll find zip regarding how to specifically read back an advisory message such as “Expect Fuzzy at 8,000”.

Let there be no doubt, “Expect Fuzzy at 8,000” is advisory only in nature. It is not a clearance.

A clearance from ATC requires you to change your aircraft’s flight path.

An advisory is information from ATC that helps you to build situational awareness and/or plan ahead. An advisory does not require you to take action, though you may choose to take action after further coordination with ATC.

When our pilot said, “Fuzzy at 8,000” it sounded like a readback, implying the crew would be taking action to comply with a clearance to 8,000.

Here’s how I would have read back that clearance and advisory. “Airliner 167, at pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain Flight Level 190. We’ll expect to cross Fuzzy at 8,000.” Including “expect” in my read back tells the controller I’ve received the advisory but will not act on the information until I hear a specific clearance from him to descend lower than Flight Level 190.

In summary, when ATC advises you to expect an altitude crossing restriction, be sure to include the word “expect” in your readback. That’s not in the AIM. It’s a solid technique that helps you and your controller stay in synch.

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