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I installed an app some months ago, which gives a push message when an aircraft squawks 7700. The first time it happened, I thought the plane was about to crash, but fortunately nothing happened.

However, within the last months, I got a lot of notifications, maybe a few a week or so. I'm wondering, why there are so many emergency alerts?

I've read about possible reasons for 7700 squawks and they seem to be manifold. Isn't the purpose of an emergency call to be used only in really critical scenarios? How is an aircraft going down to be differentiated from one carrying a sick passenger? Are there any plans in the industry to change the current system?

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  • $\begingroup$ What app is that? $\endgroup$ – not2qubit Mar 2 '18 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I can't remember anymore! $\endgroup$ – Klaster Mar 7 '18 at 21:42
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7700 is a "general emergency" squawk. It tells ATC that there is "a problem" of some sort with a particular plane. And I agree that this "general umbrella" type of squawk is a good idea. I have several disagreements with the FAA, but this is a good one. Several thoughts:

  • the specific nature of the emergency is only for the PIC and ATC. Nobody else needs to be informed, they can't help anyway.
  • oftentimes lost comm is part of the problem. So they can't talk, but you still want to show ATC that you have an emergency. You could squawk 7600 for lost comm, but if you have some truly serious, like an engine failure (I personally don't consider lost comm anything even remotely near "truly serious"), you can inform ATC with 7700 that you have a more serious problem than just lost comm. They'll notice the "lost comm" aspect of this situation on their own, by not being able to talk to you. Now they know you have something more serious, because you don't show 7600.
  • If you really want to use different squawk codes for different types of emergencies, it would merely add to the already large amount of numbers and codes pilots and controllers have to learn by heart. In an emergency where time might be of the essence, trying to remember abstract information like this can be difficult.

"The first time it happened, I thought the plane was about to crash"

Why did you think that? 7700 is not some "we're gonna die" type of squawk. It's a general "umbrella type" of squawk for all sorts of emergencies. An intelligent pilot will squawk 7700 for any "small" or "big" type of emergency (and who is supposed to be the judge on "big" vs. "small"?).

"How is an aircraft going down to be differentiated from one carrying a sick passenger?"

It isn't, because it doesn't matter. The people that are familiar with the situation (PIC and ATC) are in communication, unless lost comm, in which case the controller who can't glean more info from the 7700 squawk can't help anyway, and nobody else needs to be informed because they can't help anyway. Squawk codes aren't meant for desktop people like you who download some app and watch.

"Would you recommend handling this issue differently than it is done now, if you were in the position to?"

No. There are good reasons to have an "umbrella" type of squawk for all types of emergencies.

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  • $\begingroup$ More than just ATC can help. If you squawk 7700 and talk to no one you can still expect to see a fire truck and ambulance where you land. Might not help in the air but you will appreciate it if you need it. $\endgroup$ – casey Jul 26 '15 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ True, but that doesn't matter for squawking. You don't squawk for fire trucks. Squawking is for ATC. $\endgroup$ – Andreas Lauschke Jul 26 '15 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ True but priority handling, getting other aircraft out of your way and coordinating with ground emergency services is all part of the deal that ATC provides. $\endgroup$ – casey Jul 26 '15 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ True, but that's not part of the squawking policy. The question is about the regulatory situation, not additional benign, auspicious side effects. We can appreciate positive side effects, it doesn't mean they're the reason for the regulation. The question was about "the purpose of ...". That's about ATC policy, not benign side effects such as fire trucks. $\endgroup$ – Andreas Lauschke Jul 26 '15 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Meta: While the arguments against specific emergency squawks are valid, this answer hasn't acknowledged a single positive aspect of them (read: there are two sides to a medallion), hence I feel this answer is biased. $\endgroup$ – mucaho Jul 26 '15 at 20:06
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The reason for squawking 7700 is that Air Traffic Control can easily identify you on the radar display. This eases identification and coordination between air traffic controllers.

The differentiation between various scenarios is done by voice communication, there is no need to complicate the squawk system. Typically there is not more than one aircraft squawking 7700 at the same time in an airspace so the identification based on code 7700 is simple and effective.

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