I listen to ATC a lot and often hear airliners cleared for visual approaches in the USA. Interestingly, if it's European airliner pilots they deny the visual approach and request ILS even if they are in an emergency and probably should land ASAP. Why is that? Are European pilots not used to hand flying? I assume pilots flying, for example, A380, should have extremely good piloting skills. What is the problem with doing a simple visual approach?

I also haven't heard yet from ATC to clear an airliner for a visual approach in Europe.

Here is the audio source (via YouTube): 30% of time is spent dealing with turning ILS on for 31L.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this question will remain open without edits because European pilots do visual approaches all the time, though the weather at home is probably less amenable to it. Is it truly less often than other airlines when conditions permit? If you've heard one insist on an ILS during an emergency when they should land ASAP you should back that up with a source. But it's true that some airlines have been too conservative and not let their pilots practice visual approaches - the Asiana 214 captain who crashed at SFO had rarely flown them. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Jan 17, 2018 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ I added the source. $\endgroup$
    – Andrius
    Jan 17, 2018 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ The same question can be also probably reversed: Why are visual approaches (in the EU) preferred by EU pilots, but not US pilots? $\endgroup$
    – ocirocir
    Mar 18, 2021 at 14:23

5 Answers 5



If a visual approach is offered, and it gets accepted by the pilot, the airport can declare higher capacity. Whereas IFR procedures reduce the airport's capacity.

US and European airports handle their slots differently. Europe plans for the worst, which can on good days limit the full potential. The US plans for the best, which can on bad days end up in huge delays.[1] I've also explained it here. In short, if in the US they started offering more IFR procedures during good weather (VMC), they won't be able to back up the declared capacity.

Generally, airports are closer to the cities in Europe than in the US (apart from coastal cities) due to the different city planning (old vs. new). Airports in close proximity to cities have approach procedures that are designed for noise abatement, and are best flown as precisely as published.


So in general, the pilots are used to different systems. Also pilots that don't fly a lot in the US—like foreign carriers—are not as familiar with the surroundings as local pilots are. A Flight Safety Foundation briefing[2] discusses the risks associated with visual approaches for airplanes heavier than 12,500 lb:

Accepting an air traffic control (ATC) clearance for a visual approach or requesting a visual approach should be balanced carefully against the following:

  • (...)
  • Crew experience with airport and airport environment.

It's about knowing what to look for, especially when a particular visual approach does not have a visual approach chart.

enter image description here
An example of a visual approach chart showing landmarks; airnav.com

Use of ILS in emergnecy

Regarding the specific video about the bomb threat and the pilot's request to have the ILS turned on, for that scenario in particular it's because an ILS approach is less demanding,[3] especially in such high workload environment. (Also the flight was diverting mid-route.)

Poor professional judgment/airmanship (...) Decision to execute a nonprecision approach, instead of an ILS approach, in demanding conditions to expedite arrival (...)[3]

1: Odoni, A., and T. Morisset. "Performance comparisons between US and European airports." Proceedings of the 12th world conference on transport research (WCTR), July 11–15. 2010. (paper; presentation)
2: Flight Safety Foundation ALAR Toolkit. ALAR Briefing Note 7.4 — Visual Approach. (PDF)
3: Khatwa, Ratan, and Robert L. Helmreich. "Analysis of critical factors during approach and landing in accidents and normal flight." Flight Safety Digest 17.11-12 (1999): 1-2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44729511

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    $\begingroup$ As a European pilot flying to USA, this answer is spot on. Advance approach briefing is a key factor here. Visuals are not undoable, but cannot be improvised. $\endgroup$
    – busdriver
    Mar 18, 2021 at 10:36

Since your question explicitly mentions emergency situations:

Especially during time-critical emergency landings, the workload of the flight crew is at a higher level anyway. The answer by ymb1 already explains that familiarity with the airport surroundings is usually lower for foreign pilots. Add to the fact that at the end of a long-haul flight, fatigue levels may be higher for those crews. In this case, performing an instrument approach instead of a visual is one more technical aid (which you can easily make use of) to ensure an early stabilized approach, especially when your mindset is rather in hurry due to the emergency.

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    $\begingroup$ Another factor in an emergency landing is you may be landing at an unfamiliar airport. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2018 at 2:17

Part of the issue may be that airline companies have specific rules/regulations to what aircrew are allowed to do. In Europe it is quite common for airline companies to only allow their aircrews visual approaches at their home bases (e.g. Amsterdam for KLM) or, in case the company uses several hubs, on those hubs.

There's a thin line between allowing visual approaches to keep up training levels for aircrews and forcing instrument approaches to reduce risk, potential additional costs (imagine the costs of a go-around during practicing visual approaches) and loss of throughput from an ATC perspective.

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    $\begingroup$ "and loss of throughput from an ATC perspective." Throughput is less with instrument approaches, not more. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jan 18, 2018 at 20:13

First, background info. A visual approach can have various meanings. In the case of airlines it does not convert an IFR flight to VFR nor cancel the flight plan. What ATC is doing [in the USA] is asking a pilot "do have the runway in sight?" or "traffic 4 miles ahead and 1000 feet below, B737, do you have it in sight?", if the pilot says no than ATC maintains positive control and minimum radar separation, if the pilot says yes then ATC can issue a visual approach either directly if the runway is in sight or with "follow that plane, maintain visual separation, cleared to land runway 35R" even if the runway is not yet visible. As the pilot is maintaining separation (with a specific aircraft only) the radar minima are no longer in effect and reduces ATC workload so they can focus on other problems like looking for aircraft that are off course, and it allows much closer spacing and landing. Tower based visual separation is often used for departures before radar minima are achieved, this is a controller in the tower looking at both planes out of the window.

Now why do American pilots favor visual separation and clearance? A cultural difference, in part due to the supply of pilots and general aviation, in part due to the general culture of the country. The majority of general aviation is in north America and so US airline pilots are often sourced from general aviation pilots that are accustomed to visual flight procedures. The USA also has traditionally had a very large supply of military pilots, who are even more accustomed to adapting to non-standard conditions and visual separation.(like in flight refueling) Often military convoys are simply given block altitude corridors by ATC and the pilots fly as they like within that block separating themselves.

With FAA regulations, while under positive ATC radar separation both the pilot and controller are more at risk of a regulation violation if minimum separation is not maintained. There is no explicit minimum for two planes under visual separation.(radar separation still applies to other traffic)

Airline companies outside of the USA, due to a lack of general aviation and smaller military, tend to train pilots "ab-initio". That is complete training from the beginning, often targeted at a specific plane and airline procedures. This is more narrowly focused than typical American training; this is efficient but some of the programs may lack breadth. I tend to think this focus can make a very good co pilot in less time but maybe is not as good for captains.(only an opinion and not a strong opinion) Funny enough many of these airlines have their training programs in the USA for reduced cost and may use US instructors, but it is not typical US curriculum.

Now for company culture, non-USA airlines often encourage full use of automation to avoid pilot deviation from standards. This includes using radar separation rather than visual, computer limited flight controls(Airbus "normal law"), and heavy use of autopilot even at lower altitudes. This has the side effect of more pilots loosing the ability to handle alternate situations. So you have reduced problems created by pilot judgment but may also reduce pilot judgment when there is a problem. Air France 447 is the most recent example with a full investigation report.(LionAir610 may also be an example based on the preliminary report, but the investigation is still in progress.) I do not know the legal responsibility in each country, maybe airline company, maybe pilot, etc.

On the US side, the pilot in command is legally responsible for the whole flight from from preflight log review and general aircraft inspection all the way to engine shutdown and unloading. As such the pilot has final authority to accept or refuse any ATC instruction. Though this has some limits; if you say yes to do something and then do something different this is a "pilot deviation" and may require paperwork to explain. US ATC often asks pilots to "state intentions" if the pilot contacts them with a problem, that is the pilot tells ATC what the pilot is going to do rather than asking for permission. Basically you may hear pilots outside the USA asking permission to maneuver or land, even in an emergency; in the USA pilots are trained to take any action needed to get the plane on a runway in one piece and to inform ATC is second priority(helpful but not essential).


Visual vs. ILS/RNAV/Whatever approaches are not what determines whether the crew is hand flying, that is for sure. All instrument rated pilots are tested on and regularly required to hand fly instrument approaches, and some instrument approaches actually do not allow for autopilot coupling below a certain altitude (that doesn't mean pilots don't cheat, but they are breaking the rules if they do). Further, a good number of pilots will still follow an instrument approach down much of the way to the runway anyway, given that visual clearances generally aren't given until the airport is in sight. The real difference is that visual approaches are given out once ATC knows the airport is in sight. That doesn't mean the crew can't still fly the instrument approach to minimums, it just means that ATC can keep increase the stream of arrivals with reduced spacing.

Also, I don't hear Lufthansa, British Airways, Edelweiss or even JAL denying the visual at SAN. They could, but there really isn't a need. Of course, there is no ILS on Runway 27, so that affects things.


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