Listening In
September 11, 2010 6:31 PM   Subscribe

Can you listen to air traffic communications inflight?

On a recent episode of Jay Leno, (skip to 22:46, but the whole bit is pretty funny) Louis CK recounted an air travel story and implied he could listen in one the conversation between the air traffic control tower and the pilot, possibly by plugging his ears?? What? I have been on many a flight and have never heard of this? Is this true? If not, what did he mean?
posted by en el aire to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have been on a few flights where there was a channel on the radio thingdoo where you could listen in to the conversation, yeah. Not most flights, but some.
posted by jessamyn at 6:34 PM on September 11, 2010

I've been on Continental Airlines flights that have the Air Traffic Control broadcasts on one of the onboard radio channels, so I just plugged my headphones into the armrest and listened to ATC. Once I even got to overhear when the pilot turned down the wrong runway...
posted by advicepig at 6:34 PM on September 11, 2010

United sometimes plays them over the inflight system. I don't know of other airlines that do.
posted by procrastination at 6:35 PM on September 11, 2010

United has a bit of brand identity around Channel 9, a radio channel on the in-flight entertainment that's the pilot talking to ATC. It's pilot's discretion and lots of people grumble you can't get it as often as you used to.

With in-flight Internet you could stream live audio off of LiveATC, although you'd have to know a bit about ATC procedures to keep up with your plane.
posted by Nelson at 6:35 PM on September 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

United offers it, yeah. Another option is to find a nearby feed on liveatc and follow that. (Note that "between the air traffic control tower and the pilot" may not mean what you think it does; see the Wikipedia entries "Ground control" and "TRACON" for more information.)
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 6:38 PM on September 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all, for the quick responses! I guess he was mimicking earbuds... and thank you AksidenzGrotesk for the clarification. I never noticed the option on some flights and thought there was a secret trick for tapping in on tower/ground control communications that everyone knew about but me!
posted by en el aire at 6:59 PM on September 11, 2010

Channel 9 on United is at the pilot's discretion. I have often asked for it and most times, when it is not already on, the pilot has said no. Not sure what he is afraid of.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:19 PM on September 11, 2010

Be aware that not all of United's current fleet is equipped to share air traffic control on channel 9; check the in-flight magazine for details.
posted by germdisco at 7:30 PM on September 11, 2010

It isn't always (often?) announced that it's available, I usually plug my headphones in and skim through the channels just in case there's something amusing or different.
posted by anaelith at 7:31 PM on September 11, 2010

I have been told that, on planes with an in-flight entertainment system, the air traffic channel is activated at the discretion of the captain. Can any flight attendants or pilots confirm this?
posted by muddgirl at 9:59 PM on September 11, 2010

I listen to it on United's in-plane entertainment system as well. Puts me to sleep. Plus, I can kind of tell where we are by noticing when Denver Center tells our pilot to contact Chicago Center for example. It's actually very boring except for when the pilot switches to Approach at a big airport. Those controllers are busy mofos.

I heard an in-flight emergency declared on another plane once. It was only technically an emergency, though, nothing really exciting. The plane had a malfunctioning something or other and was about to head to Japan. They wanted to land to have it fixed before flying over the ocean, but since they had just taken off, they didn't want to dump all that fuel. Apparently you can only land "heavy" in an emergency, so they declared an "emergency" with no assistance required. I heard that whole discussion. Maybe that's the kind of thing some pilots don't like having eavesdroppers for?
posted by ctmf at 11:48 PM on September 11, 2010

Ramsey Electronics sells a Passive Air Band Monitor that will work on all airlines.
posted by Floydd at 7:49 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

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