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In the liveATC clip on this YouTube video, an American Airlines 767 arriving at SFO (San Francisco International) had been cleared to land on 28R, but, apparently while already on final, was told to switch to 28L.

The initial clearance given as

American 2293 Heavy, San Francisco Tower, Wind 210 at 18, Caution Wake Turbulence, Heavy 767 mile-and-a-half final, Runway 28 Right, Cleared to Land.

which was read back, as per the usual. However, the Tower later sent the following transmission:

American 2293 Heavy, Change to Cleared to Land Runway 28 Left

which the pilot read back as

28L, Cleared to Land. American 2293 Heavy.

However, the pilot was seemingly too focused on flying the final to notice that the runway assignment had changed between the clearances and continued flying final to 28R, nearly resulting in landing on top of a United jet that was subsequently cleared to line-up-and-wait on 28R. Fortunately, the United pilot noticed the big 767 flying towards him and exited the runway on the other side instead of lining up. Tower then instructed American 2293 to go around.

It seems to me that the phraseology used to change the clearance here is too close to sounding like the controller is just repeating the initial landing clearance, rather than directing a busy pilot's attention to the fact that he was just told to change runways while apparently already flying final.

My question is: Was the phraseology correct for this change of the clearance? If not, what is the proper phraseology?

Given that this was in the U.S., I'm looking for FAA phraseology.

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  • $\begingroup$ If they're on final I'd like to think they shouldn't change clearance like that! Would it not be better to make them go around anyway or just keep the runway clear so they could land? $\endgroup$ – Notts90 Jan 24 '17 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know the phraseology and don't have time to look right now but seems like everyone got it wrong. That amended clearance is nowhere near strong enough. A runway change on final? Poor situational awareness from the crew. How about "cancel clearance" followed by a new clearance and if the crew are unable to do so safely, a go around? $\endgroup$ – Simon Jan 24 '17 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Notts90 That's my (student pilot, not airline pilot) opinion also, though from a bit of searching around, "side-stepping" seems to be somewhat normal there. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 24 '17 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon Yes, my first thought was that "Cancel landing clearance" followed by the new clearance would have been the appropriately-strong phraseology for something as significant as changing an already-issued landing clearance to a different runway, but I wasn't sure what if that was officially 'correct' or not, hence the question. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 24 '17 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ In my opinion landing clearance cancel and then go-around with lineup for the new runway would have been appropriate. $\endgroup$ – Burhan Khalid Jan 24 '17 at 10:23
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The phraseology was slightly incorrect, this is from the FAA's ATC Orders (section 3-10-5):

3−10−5. LANDING CLEARANCE
a. When issuing a clearance to land, first state the runway number followed by the landing clearance. If the landing runway is changed, controllers must preface the landing clearance with “Change to runway.”
PHRASEOLOGY−
RUNWAY (number) CLEARED TO LAND.
Or
CHANGE TO RUNWAY (number) CLEARED TO LAND

That means the ATC instruction should have been:

American 2293 Heavy, change to runway 28L, cleared to land

All the correct information was in the transmission you quoted, it was just given slightly out of order. But that could easily be an issue for a pilot who's in a high-workload phase of flight and it's probably exactly why the ATC orders say that the words "change to runway" must come first.

I've had ATC change my landing clearance a couple of times but the controller always asked me first if I could do it:

Tower: N12345, cleared to land 21L
N12345: Cleared to land 21L, N12345
[A few seconds later...]
Tower: N12345, are you able to switch to 21R?
N12345: Affirm, we can do that, N12345
Tower: N12345, change to runway 21R, cleared to land

However, landing a C182 at a class D is a bit different from landing a heavy at SFO; I assume the controllers there have less time to talk so they may simply have changed the clearance and expected the pilot to say "unable" if necessary.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the comment on my answer. Its been a while since I had to read up on US R/T. Your answer is now, technically, more "correct" than mine as the OP asked specifically for US procedures. I think i'll leave mine as its a "general" answer. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 24 '17 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ This has happened to me twice. Once the clearance was "cancel landing clearance, now cleared to land runway XX". The other time it was "correction, runway change, cleared to land runway XX". $\endgroup$ – David Schwartz Jan 24 '17 at 18:46
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Was the phraseology correct for this change of the clearance?

Probably not. It was possibly missing an important standard phrase, and almost certainly missing the clarity that such a change should include. There was also some implied diligence, on the part of ATC, to ensure that the change in clearance was understood by the pilot.


If not, what is the proper phraseology?

There is a missing Phrase in the ATC transmission, and both the UK CAA CAP 413 and the ICAO Radio telephony Manuals both agree (I will assume the FAA do too, as they tend to follow suit, but for my google-fu I cannot find the official source):

CORRECTION - An error has been made in this transmission (or message indicated). The correct version is...

So, the ATC's instruction should probably have been along the lines of:

American 2293 Heavy, CORRECTION to clearance to land. Cleared to Land Runway 28 Left.

To which the aircraft should have responded

28 Left, Cleared to land, American 2293 Heavy

Should the controller have not received the correct read back of the assigned new runway...

28 Right, Cleared to land, American 2293 Heavy

The controller's job, would have been to correct that mistake immediately

American 2293 NEGATIVE, Cleared to land Runway 28 LEFT. Confirm runway change received.

To which you would hope the pilot got the point that his clearance has changed, and he would read back the corrected landing clearance.


There are 2 other possibilities. My opinion is that the above would be slightly more correct but for answer completeness:

The controller could have cancelled the previous clearance using that standard phrase CANCEL [previous clearance] and reissued it.

American 2293 CANCEL clearance to land Runway 28 Right. Cleared to land Runway 28 Left

To which an accurate readback would have been expected, with the same diligence by ATC to correct any mistake. At least in this case it is clear from the message that the landing clearance has changed.

The other option, and its a real outsider and less standard (as its intention is to reclear for the purpose of routing) is the standard phrase RECLEARED

American 2293 RECLEARED to land Runway 28 Left

Again, this should have made it clear to the pilot that his clearance has changed, and the same readback/check cycle would be initiated. I think this particular example is moving away from standard phrasology, and I only include it for completeness.


As you can see, even standard phraseology is sometimes ambiguous as to the correct one to use. It's why controllers & pilots have some leeway (we're humans communicating at the end of the day). The important part here that was missed was an accurate message/readback/confirmation cycle.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does anyone know if the US just follows ICAO for RT phraseology? There is no RT phraseology guide on the faa website that I can find. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 24 '17 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ The main sources in the US are the P/CG and ATC Orders. Other sources like the PHAK have information too, but I'm not aware of a single FAA RT guide; the P/CG is probably the closest thing, and it does highlight differences between US and ICAO phraseology. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jan 24 '17 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ This answer provides useful information and I upvoted, but I don't think 'correction' would really have been appropriate here since the initial clearance wasn't read incorrectly (as far as I can tell, at least.) It appears that the initial clearance was intended as given and that it was later changed to a different clearance for some operational reason. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 24 '17 at 20:26

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