New North Atlantic Contingency Procedures effective March 28, 2019

Author: Brent Fishlock

This blog post is based on ICAO’s North Atlantic Systems Planning Group (NAT SPG) that publishes the NAT Ops bulletin. NAT OPS Bulletin 2018_005 was issued on December 17, 2018 and is titled “Special Procedures for In-Flight Contingencies in Oceanic Airspace.” The new procedures become effective on March 28, 2019 in the North Atlantic. A TrainingPort.net podcast on these changes is available here.

These procedures do not apply anywhere else in oceanic airspace; however, there is commentary online that ICAO plans to create a single global oceanic contingency procedure in November 2020. This would be great as it would clean things up.

If I were to summarize the changes, they revolve around the initial turn which is at least 30 degrees, and the distance to offset which is only 5 miles. Also, a course reversal should not occur until the aircraft is below Flight Level 290. The separation distance between aircraft in the NAT is decreasing; therefore, this procedure keeps the aircraft closer to its originally cleared track and flying in the same direction until descent to Flight Level 290 is complete or clearance is received.

The blanket safety statement by ICAO is that the pilot shall take action as necessary to ensure the safety of the aircraft, and the pilot’s judgement shall determine the sequence of actions to be taken, having regard to the prevailing circumstances. Air traffic control shall render all possible assistance. ATC will also be expecting you to follow certain procedures unless you are unable.

Some examples of possible emergencies include:

  1. Weather deviation (This requires a slightly different procedure. See the bulletin for more information.)
  2. Medical emergency
  3. Unruly passenger
  4. Pressurization failure
  5. Engine failure
  6. Significant reduction in the required navigation capability when operating in an airspace where the navigation performance accuracy is a prerequisite to the safe conduct of flight operations, such as RNP 4 airspace

ICAO says that if an aircraft is unable to continue the flight in accordance with its ATC clearance, a revised clearance shall be obtained, whenever possible, prior to initiating any action.

If you can’t get a clearance or you don’t have time to get one before you initiate manoeuvres, then follow these procedures in the North Atlantic starting March 28, 2019:

  1. Leave the cleared route or track by initially turning at least 30 degrees to the right or to the left. The procedure is to intercept a parallel track in the same direction that is 5NM offset. The direction of the turn should be based on one or more of the following:
    • Aircraft position relative to any organized track or route system,
    • The direction of flights and flight levels allocated on adjacent tracks, 
    • The direction to an alternate airport,
    • Any strategic lateral offset being flown, and
    • Terrain clearance.
  2. The aircraft should be flown at a flight level and an offset track where other aircraft are less likely to be encountered.  
  3. Maintain a watch for conflicting traffic both visually and by reference to ACAS (if equipped) and leaving ACAS in RA mode at all times, unless aircraft operating limitations dictate otherwise.
  4. Turn on all aircraft exterior lights (commensurate with appropriate operating limitations).
  5. Keep the SSR transponder on at all times and, when able, squawk 7700 (as appropriate).
  6. As soon as practicable, the pilot shall advise air traffic control of any deviation from assigned clearance.
  7. Use whatever means is appropriate (e.g., voice and/or CPDLC) to communicate during a contingency or emergency.
  8. If voice communication is used, the radiotelephony distress signal (MAYDAY) or urgency signal (PAN PAN) preferably spoken three times, shall be used as appropriate.
  9. When emergency situations are communicated via CPDLC, the controller may respond via CPDLC. However, the controller may also attempt to make voice communication contact with the aircraft.
  10. Establish communications with and alert nearby aircraft by broadcasting at suitable intervals on 121.5 MHz (or, as a backup, on the inter-pilot air-to-air frequency 123.45 MHz) and where appropriate on the frequency in use: aircraft identification, the nature of the distress condition, intention of the person in command, position (including the ATS route designator or the track code, as appropriate) and flight level.
  11. The controller should attempt to determine the nature of the emergency and ascertain any assistance that may be required.

For more information, including actions to be taken once offset from track is complete, refer to the NAT OPS Bulletin 2018_005.

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