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This story details how an EasyJet captain flew a presumably unplanned circle to give everyone on board a look at the Northern Lights.

Are captains allowed to do this sort of thing on a whim, or would he or she have cleared it with ATC somewhere first ?

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If they were coming from Iceland, they weren't in the North Atlantic Track System.

If they were on the NATs (North America to Europe non-stops only), this would have been out of the question, but on a non-NAT route well to the north like that, the option would have been available, but they would still get a clearance from the applicable Oceanic Controller before doing so.

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    $\begingroup$ They were smack in the middle of the ADS-B/SSR surveillance corridor between Iceland in and the UK. The turn was executed at FL370, in the nominal coverage of two SSRs (one Icelandic, one on the Faroe islands) three terrestrial ADS-B stations (one Icelandic, two on the Faroe islands) plus the space based Aireon ADS-B system, all feeding data to Iceavia control centre in Reykjavik. This is not Non-Radar airspace $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jul 25, 2023 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ Though I suspect they got a call from the chief pilot the next day, asking why they were wasting gas out there! $\endgroup$ Jul 25, 2023 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @DeltaLima I forgot all about ADSB lol. It's been 13 years since my last IFR flight. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jul 26, 2023 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ ATC's job is to keep airplanes from crashing into each other. They have no interest where a plane goes or what route it takes unless it interferes with other aircraft or with safety. Obviously it depends on the situation like in a TCA, and some amount of order is necessary. I'm interested in the concept of "getting permission" from ATC. Of course, in controlled airspace ATC ultimately decides, but I would think a controller can't deny a pilot's request "just because I don't want you to". They may not like the additional workload, but if no other aircraft are affected why is it their concern? $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ @StevePemberton well they didn’t have a problem with it hence why the manoeuvre was allowed. Remember though that this is IFR flight, with a legal framework for the conduct of the flight, the traffic simply is controlled. For example, I can’t just drive my car any which way I want to on the road, I have to follow the rules of the road. Even though I might think it is better to go through a red traffic light🚦it’s probably best not to. Typically air traffic control have the best situational awareness to handle the positioning of aircraft in the sky from a safety and efficiency perspective. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 10:09
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The easyJet would be operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and most probably in controlled airspace.

3.6.2.1 Except as provided for in 3.6.2.2 and 3.6.2.4, an aircraft shall adhere to the current flight plan or the applicable portion of a current flight plan submitted for a controlled flight unless a request for a change has been made and clearance obtained from the appropriate air traffic control unit, or unless an emergency situation arises which necessitates immediate action by the aircraft, in which event as soon as circumstances permit, after such emergency authority is exercised, the appropriate air traffic services unit shall be notified of the action taken and that this action has been taken under emergency authority.

ICAO Annex 2 — Rules of the Air

The crew would be required to seek clearance from the air traffic control unit before deviating from the established flight plan or previous clearance. (i.e. they would have been on a set course and set altitude).

Deviating without proper authorisation would not be standard procedure and could lead to potential safety risks or conflicts with other air traffic.

Furthermore, I’m not sure if this would have gone down very well with the easyJet operations team - increased fuel burn and potential to run late. However, the article does suggest that easyJet supported the move, though this could have just been a comment from the PR team.

(Also, I just wanted to highlight that decision-making in multi-pilot aviation involves both pilots, not solely the captain. While the captain serves as the final authority in making critical decisions, it is essential to recognise that the flight crew operates as a cohesive team. You make it sound like one person is calling all the shots here).

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    $\begingroup$ No don’t be silly…….they would charge the passengers €50 per head for the “Northern Lights Experience.” $\endgroup$ Jul 25, 2023 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ As for the fuel consumption and delay: flying a circle to offer passengers a perhaps unique experience is well worth the whopping couple of minutes of time it takes and $150 it costs. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Jul 25, 2023 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Jpe61 I’m not sure a job in ops for a low cost airline is for you my friend. At least, don’t bring this up in the interview. $\endgroup$ Jul 25, 2023 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @tedioustortoise: If the plane was ahead of schedule, and might have needed to circle later in the flight as a consequence, perhaps circling at higher latitudes might require less fuel per minute because of lower exterior temperatures than circling nearer the destination? $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Jul 25, 2023 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper-ReinstateMonica: I was being a little facetious with my suggestion, but making an extra circle at one part of the trip doesn't always imply using more fuel. A bigger issue is that from what I understand the perceived need for air traffic control was a result of planes making slight sight detours over the Grand Canyon to give passengers a better view. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Jul 26, 2023 at 6:54

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