When VATSIM stops being fun

I’ve been on the network since 2004 and I’ve had a blast over the years. Watching the network, technology, and simulators evolve has been such a fun experience. Seeing the network grow to the size it has today is absolutely unbelievable. The amount of pilots and controllers online at a single time is great to see on maps and each time I login I’m blown away by what I see today compared to 2004.

With that said, I think we are becoming our own worst enemy with this growth. I want to preface this thread by saying my comments are not directed at any particular controller, division, or pilot. Instead, this is just a generalized view of my recent experiences online. Lately I’m finding when I fly in the US the top/down model becomes too overwhelming for a controller in a large and busy airspace. Too often I login to hear 2, 3, or even 4 pilots trying to talk at the same time to a single controller who is handling some of our busiest airports, VFR traffic, IFR requests, and inexperienced pilots making poor decisions.

This evening was finally enough for me. While completing a five hour flight I was clearly forgotten multiple times on the arrival as I listened to the controller get inundated with absolute non-sense. To the credit of the controller, he’s an absolute master at what he does, but this model of top/down when controlling such large airspaces is becoming too much with the traffic we have online and even he was being overrun by silly issues.

To my point, I would really like to see us model after our friends in Europe where some of these divisions are split up more. I know this will frustrate some pilots who hate that a controller is online, but not controlling their “sector”, but I feel like this is a necessary evil that has to happen to keep things manageable. Right now things are getting out-of-hand on the network in some of these divisions.

I absolutely love the network, but going forward I will just log off if I’m going into an area that has a single controller and way too much going on. It’s just not worth it and it’s not fun anymore. There are too many pilots and so few controllers some evenings to keep this pace up. I really hope some of the network supervisors and board members will see this and chime up because I hate to think that we are doing ourselves a disservice to our controllers and pilots by putting too heavy of a workload on them.

I’ve been on this network for two decades for a reason… because it’s fun. I would really like to see us keep it that way!

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Completely agree, the top down model just is not working anymore with how busy the network has gotten. I assume I was in the same sector as you because my flight earlier this afternoon was completely out of control. All respects to the fantastic controller who I have flown with many times as he really knows what he is doing but at a certain point when you have one controller handling all aspects of 75 flights at once it is just not going to work. After unsuccessfully trying to check in for 150 miles and get a decent clearance I finally just had to disconnect once I passed 25 miles beyond my TOD. I really hope we can come up with a better method of operation as the service is becoming more of a headache than being fun. You are spot on with the sectors needing a major split-up at the very least to take some pressure off of these center controllers.

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I suspect you and I were in the same area as you said. I don’t want to call out the controller because he did and always does a phenomenal job. I’m really hopeful we can see this gain some traction in the US because it’s absolutely getting nuts on the network and I suspect this is part of the reason controllers up and quit some days.

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Sometimes as an ATCO you just need to reduce your services and provide only core-services. For a CTR-controller that would be enroute control and maybe approach control, when capacity allows for it. Pilots can also taxi and depart on their own and call up airborne, they only need to check for an ATIS to determine the active runway(s).

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I agree. Well said Chase.

Funnily enough, the problem is the same in Europe. In the area around Frankfurt (VATSIM’s busiest airport for the last years), you will rarely if ever see _CTR online if not at least _APP is staffed who in turn will usually want at least _TWR online - and the chain can go on to _DEL (which vice versa results in situations where there’s good staffing but someone at the bottom, e.g. _GND, is leaving and everyone else then has to leave as well due to too much workload). Part of it may be due to the much more densely packed and thus (presumably) more complex airspace, so a reduction in size may still yield a positive result in the US, but in my own experience and from what I hear from other controllers, the problem is often rather a lack of frequency discipline and pilot competency than the actual size of the airspace.
20 pilots on frequency is perfectly workable if they all answer promptly and execute their instructions correctly, but the same airspace can become impossible to handle with just 5-10 pilots if you need to call everyone thrice to even get a response, constantly correct pilots because they are not executing their instructions correctly, and every other pilot tells you their entire life story on each call.
In my opinion, the only real way to improve this situation would be to require more skill from pilots, as dropping topdown entirely often doesn’t reduce the workload that much (pulling pilots from unicom and more often than not fixing their routing, resolving a conflict caused by unicom, figuring out how to descend them in time after they stayed way too high for way too long, etc. is one of the things that actually puts a significant amount of workload on controllers) but that has always been a tricky subject… However, I could also see a system work where vACCs have more power over who may staff which kinds of positions and are allowed to build a system that works well with their specific airspace; particularly seeing as the VATSIM system turns around the amount of controllers at each level compared to IRL - IRL the large majority of all controllers are ACC (and - where that differentiation exists the same way as it does on VATSIM - APP) controllers and there’s only a handful of TWR etc. controllers - VATSIM’s controller training and topdown system on the other hand results in a relatively large number of TWR etc. controllers while ACC-rated controllers are often far and few between. I’ve talked about that last point a bit more in this thread.

And this is how things will still work for the remainder of this month. After that, GCAP will come into effect and - at least technically - prohibit dropping topdown service (unless you are staffing a position that is specifically defined as not providing topdown service and have approval from your (sub-)division to open it without another station providing that topdown service being online). I guess in the original sense of the post, this can even be a good thing as it should force controllers to go offline or switch to another station when the workload is too high, but in practice controllers will most likely stay online and either try to still work the position or just disregard the policy and drop topdown service anyway.

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Sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do: take an executive decision and reduce services to the core. I do not see the point why I should rather close my ATC position instead of managing my load.

And: send a message with feedback to the BOG. Every single time. If everyone affected did this, a process of review may be triggered.

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Oh, don’t get me wrong, I am completely with you on this one. It makes absolutely no sense to put controllers into a position where they will regularly have to decide between providing no service for anyone or bad service for all - much better to let controllers shed their workload and focus on their actual position like GRP allowed so that there is at least good service for some. Nevertheless, GCAP has changed this rule and regardless of what you or I may think of it, we should add that information before giving other users advice that may potentially get them in trouble.

While you are technically right, I’d be spending more time writing feedback messages and/or wallops than flying and controlling which is no fun either :confused:

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Ah, just have a pre-formatted message where you just need to fill in the correct date, time and sector :slight_smile:

Well, I will continue doing so, when I see the situation fit. Let’s see how many complaints will be lodged by pilots who actually do not have to wait for their IFR clearance and taxi instructions :stuck_out_tongue:

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As previously stated the top-down method only works up to a certain level of traffic, which varies according to airspace, competency of pilots and controller and sheer number of pilots.

Would it be possible thru the VNAS system to set a “lower limit” and have AUTO_ACARS/ACARS send out a pdc like “When airborn call CTR on 123.455” when the limit is APP or “call CTR on 123.455 when holding short r/w 01L” with a limit of TWR

Cheers
Ralph

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I think this sounds like an interesting idea, but only for the US as no other place has a vNAS-type system (although I hear the VATSYS people are working on something similar?). Generally speaking, though, we should rather come up with a solution that can work for all or at least most places regardless of the specific tools they have at hand. It’d be rather unfair towards other places if VATUSA yet again got special treatment by essentially only allowing their controllers to drop topdown service but nobody else - not to mention that this would make it even more confusing to pilots trying to figure out who is responsible for them and where they might expect service.

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Rather than reporting specific instances of when controller overload is experienced (I can assure you that the BoG is aware of the problem and subsequent controller burnout that sometimes results).what would be welcomed are suggestions, such as have been posted here, on how to alleviate the situation.

Have any of the suggestions mentioned here been feasible or brought up during meetings to be considered already? I’m genuinely curious what’s being done behind the scenes with the feedback that has been given.

And truly, if it hasn’t been said enough, the network is amazing… the people are amazing… our hobby is amazing, but there is of course room for improvement and that’s all I really was looking for here along with some discussion. Thanks for any insight!

From my experience and observations the option of reducing the extent of top-down cover has been used on rare occasions only. I guess that by far not all ATCOs have been aware of this option and rather disconnected during overload conditions or did not even login when they deemed it to be overly busy.

In my opinion the option of reducing the top-down cover during periods of high traffic load should be re-implemented.

I would much prefer splitting up sectors. The US would definitely benefit from it. The London area would really benefit from a (unrealistic :open_mouth:) TC/AC split that makes controllers only do either LL or KK, because the mayhem experienced by anyone flying in those sectors is just not fun at all.

I would definitely NOT like Andreas’ suggestion, as I would find it very frustrating indeed to load up on an airport with coverage, only to be told “I’ve decided not to control you for the moment”, a lot more annoying than the controlling logging off or changing their sector. A fluid coverage sector messes too much with predictability for my taste, the position manned should be all you need to determine coverage.

That would be the better solution, but it is unrealistic, because we simply do not have the human resources to open all those sectors. You could argue that overloaded sectors drive potential ATCOs away and we are facing the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, but I wonder if we still would get a sufficient number of vATCOs for those CTR-sectors: you need mentors and examiners to get people up to speed and also test them. It is a long-term project and in the meantime the path to reduce pressure on CTR controllers is to reduce the coverage, when needed.

You see, I’d prefer departing on my own discretion without any delay, because the controller cannot get a word in with all the other transmissions. I rather depart on UNICOM and then call up the ATCO when airborne. Capacity permitting, the ATCO would issue a PDC by text or Hoppie, but all other ground ops would be on UNICOM. With an IFR clearance given, the controller has some kind of prediction of who is going to depart and the pilots are not completely left alone.
So: to make it short: instead of waiting forever for my clearance/ground movement instructions, I’d rather depart “unrealistically” without too much time used up and still have ATC for my climb and cruise. That’s a hundred times better than an all empty airspace.

You misunderstand me, I think the way to go is to have smaller coverage areas. Whether these are additional splits to today’s, or reducing the size of existing sectors, would have to be on a case to case basis.

I don’t see a problem with an alteration to the top-down system either, covering only a selection of underlying airports, that could maybe work. The main point is to make it predictable but also combat the insane increases in workload that multi-airport split-attention causes.

I fully understand you and in principle I agree. But if you want to split sectors, you will need more controllers to cover them during busy periods. Otherwise you’ll have e.g. a CTR covering EGLL, but nobody for EGKK. This is not very satisfying either.

While certainly possible, I think it’s more likely that controllers are not well able to figure out when their own workload becomes too high (partially because VATSIM controllers are nowhere near as experienced as real world ones, partially because VATSIM tends to be more spontaneous (particularly regarding departures), and partially because it’s - presumably - easier to gauge how problematic certain aircraft will likely be (from what I hear, different airlines usually garner a reputation and controllers also get an idea of the SOP of their regulars - but on VATSIM you can’t just say “ah, it’s British Airways, I’ll have to keep an eye out for them randomly reducing their speed” or “ah, it’s Lufthansa, they know their way around Frankfurt”)) and, crucially, that they don’t want to drop topdown service for fear of them losing control of the situation entirely and because they feel bad about denying people service (I mean, I already feel bad when people call me for VFR stuff at EDTY and I have to tell them that we don’t do topdown for AFIS :sweat_smile:).
But when the topic of this dropping topdown coverage line from GRP being gone in GCAP came up in the Discord server recently, VATGOV13 chimed in that in his opinion, there was no intention to remove that kind of flexibility with GCAP. While I personally think the reasoning for why we are still able to continue dropping topdown service is incredibly flawed (and if you read on in that Discord conversation, I have explained why in there), I guess that can be taken as an approval to do so regardless of the actual phrasing in GCAP.

There are definitely situations on VATSIM where this could potentially help, but there are two issues to consider when creating entirely unrealistic sector structures: the IRL sectors are the way they are for a reason, i.e. because they make sense with procedure design and traffic flows - VATSIM facility engineers can’t be expected to work out completely new sectorization, especially not in those incredibly complex airspaces like the London area; additionally, only covering one particular airport doesn’t necessarily make it easier, it may actually make it harder (e.g.: if airport A’s procedures cross paths with airport B’s procedures, but you only cover airport A, then you will have to talk to all airport B in- and/or outbounds anyway, but are no longer able to control what they actually do - particularly the outbounds might then depart and you’ll have to send them a contact me shortly after departure, get conflicts if they take too long to call you, and it’ll just generally become more stressful for controllers and pilots alike - so it is probably easier to have them be required to call for topdown service and then tell them to standby until you have sufficient capacity to deal with them).

For the moment, I would agree, but if at some point down the road there was a way to communicate the actual coverage based on selection in the controller client to map tools like SimAware or VATGlasses, that would make it possible for pilots to determine the coverage regardless of a controller’s logon.

Whether it helps depends a lot on the actual airspace structure and design though. Particularly in places where there are multiple busier airports in close proximity - and those are the places where you usually get that problem - it may actually increase the workload if you no longer have control of what happens at the other airports, as I pointed out above.
In my opinion, the best approach would be to let vACCs decide more freely who can cover what. VATGER already has a system that makes it very easy for new controllers to staff the small, uncomplicated airports up to TWR with their S1 and it has led to many airports that would never receive anything other than topdown service before being fully staffed regularly now. Sure, controllers there may not be super competent yet, but I personally much prefer someone who still struggles with the phraseology here and there or doesn’t issue the most efficient instructions over the topdown “standby for 30 minutes”, “clearance, taxi own discretion, report ready for departure at the holding point”, and/or “cleared to land, taxi stand of choice, bye”. I think a similar system could work in many places and even beyond just TWRs. I’d argue that S2s could - with a short introductory course similar to the one S1s receive here - easily provide adequate APP service on smaller, less complicated APP sectors, and the same way I also think S3s can provide adequate ACC services on smaller, individual sectors as long as they are not too complicated. This could also have the added effect of allowing controllers to practice for their upcoming new rating ahead of time which would allow mentors to mostly skip the basics and instead go straight to working on the trainee’s weaknesses etc. and in turn make it possible to use the actual solo phase (which GCAP now also heavily restricts) more effectively, thus reducing the risk of controllers not being able to advance to the next rating due to not being able to fix crucial weaknesses in time and/or a simple lack of available time to invest into the training/solo phase. Sure, such a system would not increase the amount of controllers available for the particularly busy airports/sectors, but it would reduce the amount of topdown coverage particularly ACC controllers have to provide, allowing them to concentrate on the major airports and central conflict points and traffic streams, thus reducing the workload for them as well; and because more airports are actually well-staffed, pilots will be more likely to fly to smaller airports as well which reduces the strain on the individual airports and traffic streams so controllers won’t have to issue as many instructions and it becomes less likely that a pilot not properly following an instruction causes a bunch of problems.

Personally I very much dislike saying “(Airport) is uncontrolled, depart and call me airborne”. Going about it like that means I have no control over the aircraft (route, time of departure, etc) and it can cause more issues once the aircraft is already airborne and I have less options and time to rectify the issue. Personally I would rather follow traditional uncontrolled airport IFR release procedures.
That being said, I personally think we could increase coverage by allowing controllers to open lateral positions such as multiple towers or approaches. It would require some technical and policy changes but would greatly increase the coverage that a few controllers can provide while taking much of the load off of the controller working top-down.