The preliminary report for the LNI610 crash shows how much distractive conversation there was between ATC and LIN610 at a time when the pilots clearly didn't have the aircraft under control – as evidenced by the FDR data – and should have talked to each other to diagnose the problem, rather than to ATC. This violates the principle "aviate - navigate - communicate".

While it clearly falls within the responsibility of the crew to declare an emergency, my question is posed from the point of view of air traffic control:

(from the preliminary report, p.1+2)

At 23:21:53 UTC, the LNI610 SIC requested approval to the TE controller “to some holding point”. The TE controller asked the LNI610 the problem of the aircraft and the pilot responded “flight control problem”.

At 23:24:51 UTC, the TE controller added “FLIGHT CONT TROB” text for LNI610 target label on the controller radar system as reminder that the flight was experiencing flight control problem.

The preliminary report reveals how much dispensable talk there was between ATC and LNI610 in this crucial moments even after the flight was marked as experiencing flight control problems.

My question is:

Seeing that the flight was marked by ATC as "FLIGHT CONT TROB", could ATC have handled the situation differently, e.g. bothering them less or even handling the situation outright as PAN PAN (don't restrict navigation, reroute other traffic, avoid communication as much as possible) even though it was not declared as such by the crew ?

Or did they essentially have their hands tied, obliged to treat the flight as any other as long as no emergency is officially declared via either MAYDAY or PAN PAN ?

I very much welcome any answers, including from pilots or ATC controllers who are unfamiliar with this particular accident, but can share their work experience (how this is handled in practice) AND/OR point to specific rules (how this should be handled in theory).

FDR data (timestamps + pink vertical lines added by myself at 23:21:53 and 23:24:51 UTC corresponding to the ATC excerpts quoted above): img


7 Answers 7


In the US, a controller has the authority to treat any situation as an emergency, and they do. I have had controllers "declare" an emergency multiple times, even when I thought I did not have an emergency.

There are some advantages to the controller. His work gets shed to others, and his supervisor is at his side to assist.

At one point, after ice, delays and trying to get into a DC airport close to the Christmas holiday, I declared "minimum fuel" which I didn't consider an emergency. I just wanted to let the controller know that if they vectored me towards West Virginia again, I would be landing close to or at reserves. The weather at the destination was far better than the ice I have been flying through at 13,000, but I wanted to avoid plunking down at Martinsburg, away from my destination to buy another load of fuel.

Immediately I got handed off to a Dulles controller, whose radar had better coverage than Baltimore Approach who handled approaches normally for my destination. I got kid glove treatment, and did not get further delays, and landed at my destination without any incident. After the paperwork, I dipped the tanks, and figured I still had about 27 minutes more fuel than my minimums for IFR night flight with a diversion to better weather.

Similarly, having gear problems almost always gets an "emergency" status.

I will say one thing, when I was dealing with a cockpit fire, and the controller kept asking again and again the same questions it was distracting, but they are trying to get their job done the best as they can, just as the pilot is. In my case, I just stopped answering lower priority questions. In the case of the cockpit fire, I killed the master switch (at night), and another pilot in the back brought ATC up on his handheld radio. Up front we dealt with the fire, and delegated the communications to a guy in back.

So in application to the LNI610 and other situations, it makes sense that the pilots exercise their ability to tell a controller to "standby." It works some of the time.

I am not as familiar with the US Controllers Handbook as I have been in the past, but I am confident that the controllers have authority to declare an emergency. But keep in mind that they are products of their environment, just as pilots are, and they have training, objectives, experiences and organizational expectations which change and vary.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Declaring an emergency, especially when fuel is involved, was a factor in the crash of Avianca Flight 52 in January 1990. Not the only factor, but enough for controllers to be more willing to instigate an emergency. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2018 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ I was in an aviation college back in the 90s; a retired AT controller was our instructor. In the first class we role-played a scenario as ATC with bad weather rolling in and GA aircraft (explicitly not in emergencies) and other aircraft. We decided to land the GA aircraft first. He told us we would have lost our jobs, and that the pilots needed to declare emergencies. (There was probably more to the scenario but details escape me) Was he wrong or did that change over the years? $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Dec 9, 2018 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim, I can't say exactly what your instructor was referring to. I know that controllers say they handle traffic "first come first serve" but I also know there is a strong bias for commercial carriers. That is what caused my "minimum fuel" advisory I mentioned in the answer. I had already had two hours of delaying vectors so 121 carriers could get on the ground. If there is a squall line moving in, and one is bouncing around in a C150, and the controllers are telling you to standby, you should consider the appropriate action for your situation, and do it. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Dec 9, 2018 at 17:34

Yes. For example, in the US (I don't know what procedures are used in Indonesia), controllers are instructed (see 10-1-1):

If the words “Mayday” or “Pan-Pan” are not used and you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.

Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual.

In other words, if you think there could be an emergency or potential emergency, use your judgement to handle it appropriately, regardless of which words are used. The controller's hands are not tied by the failure to use the magic words "PAN PAN" and or "MAYDAY."

Controllers aren't mind readers though, and don't inherently know what an aircraft in distress needs unless that's communicated. "Flight control problem" encompasses a pretty wide range of conditions, and since the crew asked to proceed to "some holding point," it could be reasonable for the controller to conclude that the situation was stable until the crew stated their intentions. Whether the controller's communications interfered with the crew's ability to address the problem is something that could be addressed in the investigation's final report, along with recommendations to improve ATC procedures in the future.


The job of ATC is to help the pilots get where they need to go safely and efficiently. In order to do that, they have to ask questions, to know what emergency services need to be alerted or where the airplane might be able to land if needed.

The mantra of pilots is aviate, navigate, communicate. Communication comes last. If they are saturated with the most important items (flying and navigating), they are trained to worry less about communicating. Unless ATC has something more important to add, they can wait. The systems is already designed to handle communication failures, even if inadvertent. ATC can always clear other aircraft out of the way if they have to. If an airplane says they have flight control issues, and begins flying erratically, you can be sure that's their first priority.

ATC does not have to have a formal declaration of emergency to change the way they are handling traffic. Sometimes they can tell something is wrong and they do all they can to help. But they can't know everything. If a plane is having issues, it's the pilot's job to deal with that and let ATC know what they need.


The flight controller typically has full authority to conduct traffic in a safe manner. If they felt they had to redirect traffic, allow the aircraft to travel unrestricted, or reduce the amount of communication, it's within their power to do that - of course, they may be questioned after the fact whether it was necessary, but they certainly have the right to make those decisions. However, a controller cannot officially declare an emergency for the aircraft, as that decision can only be made by the flight crew (more specifically, the captain would be the authority on whether it is an emergency.

In the case of Lion Air 610, the pilots did indeed say they were having trouble with their flight controls, however the information they transmitted to the controllers would not constitute an emergency alone. Non-critical issues with flight controls are somewhat common, and typically they would return to land under normal procedure to be checked out by mechanics. 610's total loss of control happened fairly suddenly, though there was partial/temporary loss leading up to it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Video at 12:17 of ATC declaring an emergency for an aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Jan 12, 2019 at 16:10

Short answer - YES.

Long answer - Back in about 1995, I was working the airspace around eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, when Casper FSS (located at Casper, back then) called me about a lost aircraft on their frequency. After a couple of minutes of sorting out reversed position reports (pilot was giving the wrong radial from the NAVAID), I established that the aircraft was 70 miles NE of KGCC (Gillette, Wyoming). He was trying to go to GCC, VFR. He was not IFR qualified.

I gave him a code, got him in radar, and asked if he was IFR qualified. "No", he answered...

KGCC was low IFR, with 1/4 mile visibility, so I asked his intentions. "Well, we want to land at KGCC", was his response. I informed him that the weather was below IFR minima for all approaches.

When I asked his flight conditions, he told me he was in the clouds... NOT a good answer.

At this point, I informed my supervisor that I was declaring an emergency on the pilot's behalf.

I did not inform the pilot. No need to upset him. I informed him that I was giving him a clearance, and he needed to do what I told him. He agreed. I put the aircraft on a 150 heading, toward CDR (Chadron, NE), which was reporting VFR. I had him put the aircraft at FL090, so I could keep him in radar.

After a couple of minutes handling other aircraft, I looked, and the guy had disappeared. I asked where he was, and he said, "Oh, we saw a hole in the clouds, and dropped beneath them, and now we're heading back up to KGCC". I then told him he was to get the aircraft back to 9000 feet (FL090), and expect turns back to KCDR. He didn't like it, but he did as he was told.

As he approached CDR, the weather began to go down, so the fellow that relieved me gave the pilot a vector to KBFF, where he landed safely. We got word to his family, who were waiting at GCC, that he was OK.

He called a couple of days later and thanked us.


Sometimes pilots are reluctant to declare emergency for different reasons( media, Inspection,..).even in a real emergency some pilots do not use related phraseology to convey the state of the flight. Controllers should be trained to resolve any confusion in communications resulted from several factors such as sociocultural and cognitive effects , in these cases controllers may need to take necessary actions to handle the flight like an emergency from a flight safety standpoint. Controllers may declare emergency for the pilots if situations entail that and there were some cases in which controllers for example observed fire in the planes but were denied by the pilots and subsequently controllers declared emergency and saved the flights. Moreover according to a research conducted by Immanuel Barshi , A NASA scientist and pilot, controllers can declare emergency for the flights if necessary. Remember that an urgency may lead to an emergency, so a prior preparedness to handle the situation if required can save the time and lives.of course there is no "one size fit all" rule and every situation may implicate a separate course of action.

  • $\begingroup$ To „declare an emergency“ is also really a US only thing. Over here in europe there‘s no difference if you say „engine no. 4 failure, declaring an emergency“ or „engine no. 4 failure, no emergency“. We will treat you the exact same way as internally you will be an emergency. And if we need you on squawk 7700 to make life easier - that’s how it is $\endgroup$
    – pcfreakxx
    May 10, 2021 at 13:31

It is wise that controllers alert even when the pilot has not declared an emergency. They have to be prepared and start coordination and assessment of the situation because one situation that is not emergent in the air can turn quickly to a distress one. This does not mean that controllers have to block the frequency and ask every moment. The controllers rule is ASSIST:

  • Acknowledge the call; get the squawk
  • Separate the aircraft from other traffic. Give it room to manoeuvre
  • Silence - on the frequency. Provide separate frequency where possible - this prevents unnecessary clutter for the pilots
  • Inform those who need to know and those who can help; inform others as appropriate
  • Support the pilots in any way possible - Start to think of alternative routings, etc.
  • Time - Give the pilots time to collect their thoughts, don’t harass them for information. Time produces good decisions

So at some situations they have to be silent. The problem of declaring or not the emergency by the pilots sometimes is that some of them are reluctant to declare at once for being extra charged by some airports.


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