Events in the U.S. vs Service Level and Stress

Hi All,
I have had this scenario unfold a few times and I’m wondering what (if anything) Vatsim might have in mind to improve it…

The situation is typically like this: It is a weekend evening, and a North American ARTCC is having an ‘event’. They are staffed up as much as they can get and there is a lot of traffic because everyone wants to fly in a region with more complete coverage.

BUT, the controllers are stressed, the center is divided into multiple control sectors which are not obvious to pilots (this is a real problem for pilots departing from Class D and using top-down… Which center freq to call?).

At a class D the pilot dials up what they hope is the right overhead controller and of course they are wrong and get handed a new freq. This isn’t a huge deal, but it is a waste of time for the controller and the pilot. Is there a way this could be better documented so Pilots could better initiate this discussion when multiple Center sectors are online?

Continuing on however, the stress levels of controllers during these events can get straight up unpleasant, again, especially if you’re not in their main flow for the event. To me this seems like it works against the intent of having an event.

How often have we heard a controller have to delay or refuse something an use the ‘we’re hosting an event’ as the reason why? What purpose does that serve? “Everyone come to this event, we can’t wait to be unable to assist you!” (just poking a little fun there, don’t take it too seriously - but, a nugget of truth…)

Is the intent to get people flying and talking and interacting and having fun? Or is the intent of the event to find out which controller is going to snap at someone because there are 50 pilots stomping on each other trying to check-in or get a specific clearance?

I don’t fly on network a lot, but when I do I of course (and everyone else) wants to have as much coverage as possible, but it seems like every time I find myself operating near one of these events it ends up being a negative experience. I’ve never personally been chewed out by a controller, but I’ve sure heard it happen plenty of times to other pilots, usually during an event. And usually for something that wouldn’t have been a big deal on a normal day.

So if you’ve kept reading this long (sorry, I’m old school, I believe in complete thoughts)… What could be done to make these things better? I know they are already running maximum staffing for these events, so its not like they can just pull in more guys and relieve the guy who is loosing his cool. And of course nobody can prevent pilots from swarming… But as is, I really don’t see what these events are intended to accomplish. Every time I’ve been near one I hear it getting ugly. And if I was on my first day in the network, I think I’d probably leave and not return, which I don’t think is anyone’s goal.

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Many vACCs have put their sector data into VATGlasses by now and the data is even accessible on SimAware since a few weeks ago (press the glasses icon right of the ATC one at the bottom). However, this only works in places that use predetermined sector splits and the US in particular seems to very much prefer the use of ad hoc splits (i.e. the controllers just decide who covers what in the moment based on traffic flows etc.). For these ad hoc splits, there unfortunately is no good way to inform pilots on who covers what other than the controller info, which may not be sufficient to list all airfields covered by that particular controller.

I think there are two main issues causing this and reinforcing each other: controller availability and pilot competency.
You say “they are already running maximum staffing for these events”, but - even though I can’t really talk for the US - this is not my experience. Usually, there will be a solid to complete amount of staffing on the ground stations, maybe even in the TMA, but particularly on ACC level, controllers are regularly working airspace that - particularly at the traffic levels we see during the more popular VATSIM events - would be covered by 5-6 or even more controllers IRL (who’d all be assisted by a planner each). This is a result of how VATSIM trains controllers as the time and resources it takes to get to C1 and be allowed to staff _CTR positions as well as the missing incentives once the C1 has been achieved lead to a very low amount of ACC controllers, a medium amount of TMA controllers, and a high amount of ground station controllers - IRL, the distribution is usually the exact other way around. On top of that, staffing is mostly confined to the event airport(s), but ACC (and often enough also TMA) controllers will usually have to provide topdown coverage for multiple other airports - and I think pilots often underestimate how much topdown coverage increases the workload for controllers. It also means that C1s are always called upon to help out during these events, specifically on ACC; they will rarely get to control other positions during events and if they cover another position or don’t participate, it can easily result in a feeling of guilt for being “selfish”.
The other aspect, pilot competency, has been talked about extensively, but particularly during busy events, it becomes an acute problem. Lack of frequency discipline, attention, and knowledge of proper phraseology can quickly lead to frequencies becoming oversaturated and as controllers usually can’t expect that pilots actually know more than the basics, they are unable to issue more complex instructions and instead have to work with the basic ones which, however, put a higher workload on the controllers (someone recently made a joke somewhere that in order to get a reasonable descend from pilots, you can do “when ready descend x” IRL but have to say “descend to x at y feet per minute and maintain speed z” on VATSIM - there is definitely some truth to it). This further increases controller workload and when there are pilots who can’t even follow these basic instructions - which happens way too often - it is obviously frustrating and an immense workload increase for controllers.
The first point probably won’t change unless VATSIM fundamentally alters its approach on topdown coverage and controller rating (although I’m not sure what would be a better solution), but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the second point as the BoG - according to the meeting minutes - has been extensively discussing possible approaches to address the problem of pilot competency these past few months.

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Thanks for the well thought out response. You covered a huge amount of ground there.

I want to clarify that I’m not comparing the performance of the controllers to IRL… I understand that the support structures simply aren’t that robust for VATSIM, nor could they ever be.

Pilot competence is always going to be an issue since there aren’t really any barriers to entry in VATSIM. As long as a day 1 new user can plop an A380 into Heathrow and pretend he knows what to do, the job of the controller is always going to include that problem. But that is a little aside from what I’m getting at with my original post.

Those issues aren’t unknown. They are well proven. And they do, and until something changes, will continue to be a burden the controllers need to manage.

I have a lot of respect for anyone who takes on the controller role in VATSIM, I tried it for a couple months, and saw a bit behind the curtain and knew it for sure was more commitment than I wanted to take on. So this isn’t a complaint about people at all. It is about culture and procedure. It seems to me these events routinely exceed the capabilities of the Centers that are running them. Why is this situation repeating at so many events?

It would be great if there was a way to vet pilots better. To make sure that people who are going to use the network are at least semi-competent. But there is only so much mileage in the Controller Skill vs Pilot Skill angle here. Ultimately its the controllers/VATSIM who create these events. If the events can’t be controlled, then something is wrong in that process. That is not the fault of the under-skilled pilots that Vatsim invited to the show.

Totally agree, it isnt realistic and bordering on impractical at times. Over the years there have been suggestions put forward on the forums, but nothing seems to change. Sadly I can’t see any interest in change.

One thing which could be done (and is used during a few events) is using slot times to regulate the number of traffic out of and into event airports. But this isn’t the optimum solution either as resources then have to be set aside to manage those.
In the end the only solution is getting more controllers and better educated pilots - both need time to get.

It seems to me these events routinely exceed the capabilities of the Centers that are running them. Why is this situation repeating at so many events?

@1627359 was pretty spot on with his reply. Lack of available controllers at higher levels to split the traffic up between different ATS positions, and pilot skill.

As a controller, on any random evening I go online, I can have times where I have 25 aircraft on my frequency and everything goes without a hitch. Fast forward 30 minutes, I have only 10 aircraft left on the frequency and it feels like nothing can go right. Somehow, the frequency often also feels a lot busier in this second scenario…

It’s not necessarily because those first 20 were stellar, and those 10 are bad pilots. It’s just that ONE honest mistake can mean that controller workload shoots through the roof in an instant. Now imagine that of those 10 pilots I mentioned, 8 or 9 are absolutely great, but 1 or 2 of them don’t (yet) have the skills required to operate in the situation they’ve found themselves in. Due to this lack of skill, they are bound to need more time and attention, and/or make more honest mistakes than your average pilot, which also means that sometimes, controller workload doesn’t just shoot through the roof, it skyrockets out of the atmosphere.

It’s quite easy to see how one small, genuinely honest mistake could snowball into a major mess that takes 45+ minutes to fix, if you consider that during events, you get a lot of pilots in a very confined area that may not even have enough room (physically or in terms of frequency congestion) to work the amount of traffic in it, let alone solve or work around the mistakes that are made.

Then add that
- not all of the pilots are up to par in the skill department, and at worst, have no clue what they’re doing. These pilots want to, but should probably not be anywhere near the event until they’re trained more and are better pilots.
- there’s a good chance that the controllers, despite being trained, may also not be quite up to the task skillwise to work THOSE amounts of traffic and are possibly overloaded, thus making mistakes of their own. Here too, they should recognise their own limits and take on less, but unfortunately for controllers, help in such situations is extremely difficult to come by. More controllers are generally not available, and flow control takes time to have effect.

All that combined will almost inevitably lead to a situation where the controller will be overwhelmed and needs to vent. In most cases, that will be behind the scenes, either by sighing or screaming at the screen, or saying something on the ATC channels, but sometimes, it happens on the frequency and unfortunately, it will usually be the one that puts the final drop in the bucket that gets the full shower experience… :face_with_diagonal_mouth:

One thing that could work to some extent to make the situation more manageable, just like it did in real life, is if more people used PDC and CPDLC if their system has it. (provided they know the rules to using it, such as still having to actively listen to the frequency)
Tests IRL have shown that while talking to one pilot, a controller can simultaneously give several instructions through CPDLC, so not only does it increase efficiency, the text format and in many cases direct integration into the system reduces chances of confusion and having to repeat instructions, as well as lowers the workload of both parties.
The only problem I’ve noticed for VATSIM, however, is that during busier times, when more pilots are in fact using CPDLC, the Hoppie servers can become overloaded and messages either don’t get through at all, or arrive somewhere between a bit to extremely delayed, actually making it less useful.

Unfortunately I rather often see pilots asking for logon to CPDLC to a controller, who initiate a descend instruction for the approach, e.g. assigning a STAR to the pilot. Usually CPDLC should only be use enroute, not during climout or approaching TOD, as the timedelay for messages via the Hoppie server usually are in the excess of 1 minute, which in these circumstances are too high. So as Mathias says, pilots need to be aware of when to use it.
The time delay is also a nuciance when handing over to the next controller. I hope VATSIM will be able to provide a CPDLC server without the delays I experience with Hoppie.

This conversation keeps running off in the direction of low-quality pilots vs controller workload. Which is for sure a problem… But that is the one that everyone already knows about.

The post was intended to be more about how could vatsim improve it? And why isn’t anything changing after all these years. Just having more oversold events, and beating the heck out of controllers or pilots clearly isn’t the answer.

If the door being wide open to (basically) all pilots is the problem, then I think the rules for entry need to be adjusted. Maybe there needs to be a very basic skills test (more than the simple written one there is now)… I don’t know what the rate of new joiners is among the pilot ranks, so I don’t know if it is feasible to do. But Vatsim does extensive training for controllers… Clearly for pilots due to numbers, you can’t do it one-on-one like the controllers are trained, but maybe a monthly thing, where some staff or volunteers work as trainers and work with a larger group of pilots?

Pilots who don’t want to demonstrate basic skills don’t get to fly, just like controllers who don’t demonstrate skills don’t get to control. Seems pretty straight forward to me. People who want to fly will do it. People who are just here to clutter up the system will leave. Would there be a decline in numbers, yes. But it sounds like those are the guys nobody wants here anyhow.

Again, maybe not viable. But with no tool to control who can fly on the network, there will never be a day where ‘that guy’ doesn’t exist, so for the moment there is little point in saying “its because of that guy”.

Certainly not a 100% solution to the problem, but just to add some color to the conversation, there is A LOT in progress right now geared toward ensuring both a better quality level of pilots can only operate on the network (new pilot orientation requirements, Supervisor enforcement of pilot standards, better initial and enrichment training, etc.).

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But I thought you guys want to be as real as it gets? Delays on CPDLC are realistic, including pilots not being able to logon.

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Thanks, Andreas. Wasn’t aware that the delays were that long.

Depends on the source of the delay, though.

IIRC, the max amount of time a CPDLC message should take to arrive is 2 minutes IRL, and it’s usually shorter. If it were just that, meaning max 4 minutes between sending and receiving a reply, I’d have no problem with it on VATSIM either, but last week or so, I had a pilot report on initial contact that he was connecting with CPDLC. That took a few minutes to come through already, after which I immediately sent him a DCT. Got no response and he didn’t turn, so after a minute or two, I instructed him over voice. Guy immediately did it, so he wasn’t AFK, took about 5 - 10 more minutes to leave my airspace, and then also didn’t reply in time to the CPDLC handoff, again requiring me to call over voice.

He was about 30 minutes out of my airspace already when he sent me a text message “Hey, that DCT you sent me? Just received it!”, followed a few minutes later by “Oh, and there’s the handoff. Thanks.”

That much delay doesn’t happen IRL, I would hope?

No, there should be some kind of timeout. Sadly, my aircraft at work does not feature CPDLC, so I cannot give you a definite answer on how long it must take before a timeout is triggered. 10 to 15 minutes is unacceptable - whenever I use CPDLC on VATSIM it does work reasonably fast, sometimes almost instant.

Short answer is 2minutes time out :slight_smile:

Thank you Raul. I had this number in that back of my mind, but did not want to spit out something wrong. Now we all know.

There really isn’t an elegant solution for this…yet. It might be possible, as CRC continues to be developed, that airspace awareness may facilitate directing pilots at these airports to the correct frequency, but otherwise, you simply just have to ask on voice, “Who covers [xxx] airport?” I always advise against PMs because if I’m really busy, those are the last thing on my to-do list.

I’ve never heard someone say, “We’re hosting an event,” as a valid reason for “Unable.” I have had to say “Unable” to certain VFR services because those are workload-permitting and my workload did not permit. But I always try to tell them to call me back a certain number of minutes later so I can accommodate them eventually.

Obviously no one wants to host an event for the purpose of scolding pilots, but, as others have alluded to on here one pilot can put a perfectly manageable sector right down the pooper. However, as long as someone is able to fly a heading, maintain an altitude, and track a localizer, I can work with them. ATC is predicated on both the controller and pilot being on the same page and if I tell someone to turn right heading 090 and they turn left to 270, now we’ve got a problem. When someone is cleared out of an airport on a procedure that contains both altitude restrictions and speed restrictions but blows through both of those, we’ve got another problem–especially when those restrictions are published on a free-to-all chart.

Not for nothing, but VATUSA did put a lot of effort into trying to restructure events over the past couple years to try to help spread the love across more than just two airports. There was a long time where events tended to result in something of a “crossfire” between two popular airports, resulting in an unrealistically high demand on both the airport arrival and departure capacity and the enroute structure between them. Now there are usually three or more fields that are highlighted as event airports, with pilots being encouraged to fly to and from the smaller intervening airports. But who wants to fly to ALB when JFK is online, right?

Ok, but that workload permitting (as it would be applied IRL) doesn’t apply to ALL ATC services. Due to the Top-Down model in VATSIM, if a pilot departing an unmanned Class D or C has to contact an enroute or tracon facility, its not (my opinion) appropriate to call that a ‘workload permitting’ request. Its a requirement of his flight and isn’t optional. Those are the rules.

I agree that ‘flight following’ is a request service, but getting out off the ground is not. Not unless we’re just expected to accept that in Vatsim’s opinion, VFR is not real flying?

Well, um… Me. Even if doing IFR, I don’t fly airliners, and rarely use major hub airports. What is the point of flying a private jet or turboprop if you’re just going to fly into JFK rather than into a reliever airport that exists for just exactly this mission?

Well, after all it is exactly this. At some point, ATC will be unable to provide top down service.
In that case, you can:

  1. Go offline - either sending all pilots to unicom or leave the airspace to some other controller (who will likely need to disconnect as well, since for an even larger airspace, top down service will be even less possible). This will likely also screw the event airport, since unicom is not known for premium sequencing of traffic.

  2. Drop top down - “call me when airborne”.

  3. Let pilots at top down airports wait until workload reduces (might take hours during busy events)

I’ll opt for 2. Yes, there is a rule, but in case it gets really busy, top down is one of the first things I’ll drop. If I’m at max capacity, I’m at max capacity and the decision is: “service for most” vs. “no service at all”.

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I see it exactly as Oli, option 2 is what you go for. ATCOs always had the option to drop full top-down services when their frequency/airspace got saturated. The only thing that can be sent to affected pilots on the ground is a PDC and instructions to taxi and depart on own discretion, then call ATC when passing xxxx feet.

EDIT: for better English

I think this #2 option needs to be communicated better to controllers and pilots.

If you’re under a saturated top down controller there should be a mechanism (within the rules) to allow a departure for a VFR flight. There is no benefit to holding up a guy at a secondary airport who has no intent of entering the hub airport airspace. It’s frustrating for everyone, and makes the service into something of a dis-service to that pilot if he can’t fly because in effect, everyone else is having too much fun :rofl:

If a controller responded with a remark that he’s unable to serve the top down, and departure is at pilot’s own risk, that would be FAR superior to asking a pilot to rot on a taxiway for 50 minutes, or in effect, to shut up and go away (which of course isn’t the words that get used, but is the effect).