I did my training around the Seattle area, and was told that landing at SeaTac Airport (the region's major International/Commercial airport), while not strictly forbidden, was definitely frowned upon because it can slow down and interfere with the big planes on schedules. To discourage GA aircraft from using the big airport, they have a variety of landing fees, ramp fees, and prior-approval requirements.

But later, I moved near MCI, and was told that landing at the big airport was no big deal. That they're actually happy to have little planes there.

If you fly small GA planes, do you land at the major airports in your area?

What advanced preparations can you make to minimize your impact on the "big boys", and remain a good airspace citizen?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Note that the landing fees can vary from "Pretty darn reasonable" to "Doctor, he's in Sticker Shock!" depending on when you land and where you go on the airport. Take for example JFK's schedule of charges which aren't at all unreasonable unless you fly in during peak times or want to park / sit on the ramp for a long time. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Jan 8, 2014 at 18:56
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ You can always call on the phone to the FBO you intend to stop at and ask about any landing or security fees, and the 100LL fuel price. Those amounts can usually tell you how much they like/dislike small aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – bovine
    Jan 8, 2014 at 20:59

10 Answers 10


Can you? Absolutely, and air traffic control will treat you (almost) like any other airplane. You are supposedly handled on a first-come-first-serve basis (reality is slightly different with different aircraft speeds, etc.). Do the airlines like it if you slow them down? No, but it's part of the system and the way that it works.

Very often, there are multiple runways at bigger airports, and sometimes there are even shorter runways that are dedicated for airplanes that don't need to land on the same one as the "big boys". Even if not, they will work you in.

Now, that being said, very often there is a better option. As you said, there are usually high fees at the big airports, so landing at a smaller satellite airport can often save you money and save you time because you won't have to taxi as far or sit and wait in line to get out. An extra 15 minutes by car can be better than an extra 30 minutes while taxiing.

As far as being prepared, it isn't really much different than smaller airports other than the fact that ATC is much busier. They don't have the time/tolerance to keep repeating instructions to you, and expect you to be "on your game". When they rattle off taxi instructions like "Cessna N1234, taxi to the ramp via Alpha, Tango, Echo, and Xray. Hold short of runway 23." they expect a quick readback and for you to follow instructions exactly because they need to move on to the next guy.

It will also help everyone out if you don't fly your final approach the way that most people are taught for an entire 10 mile final: very close to your actual landing speed. In fact, you are usually landing on a runway that is 4X+ the distance that you need and you can slow down fairly quickly (especially compared to a jet), so if you can fly an extra 20 (or 80) knots as long as possible, it will be greatly appreciated and keep traffic moving. Make sure that you leave yourself enough time to slow down at the end and above all else, be safe.

  • 23
    $\begingroup$ This is almost exactly my personal experience flying into KPDX a couple dozen times. Approach control doesn't mind you, doesn't make you wait, but does expect you to be professional on the radio and fast on final. It was a good long trip for the sharp instrument students finishing up their ratings. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Jan 8, 2014 at 19:19
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @egid One time I flew into PDX and they thought my call sign was "citation" not "cessna" LOL. But apart from that, they are very nice to deal with. I'm sure they get a lot of Hillsboro Aviation Academy traffic passing through. $\endgroup$
    – Keegan
    Jan 6, 2015 at 22:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Flew into KMDW on my IFR cross country. Not as bad as KORD would have been, but still very busy. Glad I did it then when I was on top of my game. That entire airspace is a demanding environment. Actually landing (and doing a last minute side step for jet coming in behind us) was uneventful (albeit flown much faster than one would normally do at a small airport) compared to getting to the airport. :-) $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2019 at 17:34

My favourite entry in my logbook is 2013-08-02 KOSH-KORD 1.5 hrs – from Air Venture in Oshkosh straight into Chicago O'Hare, in a Cessna 172 :-)

A friend of mine and I have flown into SFO (with our instructor), and dropped of my friend, who then took a Lufthansa flight to Munich.

So, having flown into SFO, ORD, and SAN (San Diego, the busiest single-runway airport in the US) in a Cessna 172, all VFR, here my observations:

  • obviously, prepare. I normally call the FBO, and maybe even the tower, just to get their input, and ask what would be a good time of the day.
  • best to fly with a fellow pilot, to share the workload.
  • have a taxi diagram at hand and familiarise yourself with it... navigation on the ground is harder than following the instructions in the air at some of these airports!
  • be prepared to wait outside class B for quite a bit, until they can work you in (and, be prepared to go somewhere else if they can't).
  • I like to think that they're the more likely to squeeze you in the more "professional" you are (radio calls, following their instructions quickly and precisely, etc.)
  • be prepared to be handed off from one frequency to the other for quite a bit.
  • out of courtesy, I try to go in pretty fast (fast for a C172, that is). The runways are long, so I've been on final with 120+ knots (and yes, that was a no-flap landing!)
  • ask the FBO about how much fuel you have to buy to get fees waived, and keep in mind that it's most likely going to be rather expensive... on a related note, in my experience the FBOs encourage you to come in, but then, they have nothing to lose: if you show up, they'll sell you overpriced fuel and charge you some fees; if ATC turns you away, they don't really care. That's why I like to talk to someone on the ATC side as well, or flight instructors at nearby GA airports.
  • review the radio sequence for departure, typically they want you to speak to Clearance Delivery before you talk to Ground
  • in my limited experience, ATC has been fast and professional in their communication, yet super helpful and friendly.
  • personally, I think it's super fun, and an awesome privilege, and I'm grateful that it is possible in the US. I've only done it rarely, and would not want to abuse this privilege - if every Cessna single engine out there attempted to land in a major hub daily, the privilege would be curtailed rather quickly, I imagine
  • it's just great to hear Ground say to you, "see the United 737 in front? Follow it until you see X-ray 3 on your left". Even better to hear Tower say "Lufthansa 123 heavy, hold short of Runway 27 left, traffic on final", and hear a reply "Hold short 27 left, traffic in sight (chuckling), Lufthansa 123", while you float over the numbers past a giant Lufthansa 747 :-) Short Final SFO 28 Lufthansa 747 holding short SFO 28L
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Good advice! One thing that I would point out is that they can only turn you away if you are VFR. IFR arrivals are all treated the same (more or less). $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Apr 4, 2014 at 20:41
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ “Hold short 27 left, traffic in sight (chuckling), Lufthansa 123” love it! $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Apr 5, 2014 at 6:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You wrote, "typically they want you to speak to Clearance Delivery before you talk to Ground". If I'm going VFR, what am I suppose to say to C.D.? $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Dec 10, 2014 at 19:15
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @abelenky That would be a good separate question. Summary answer: 1. Establish two-way communication. 2. Say intent. They will often give you a squawk code and then a frequency for contacting Ground Control. $\endgroup$
    – Greg Bacon
    Jan 6, 2015 at 20:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ By the way, that runway above in the pictures (with the the LH 747 holding for our little Cessna 172) is SFO 28 L (same one that the Asiana flight 214 crash-landed on). $\endgroup$
    – Fab
    May 2, 2017 at 17:19

Just to add to Lnafziger's answer (which is entirely correct), the FAA has designated five airports as "High Density Traffic Airports" (covered in FAR Part 93 Subpart K) which specifically limit the number of scheduled IFR arrivals, and it's easy to misread that as "you can't land here."

Part 93.129 specifically says:

(a) IFR. The operator of an aircraft may take off or land the aircraft under IFR at a designated high density traffic airport without regard to the maximum number of operations allocated for that airport if the operation is not a scheduled operation to or from a high density airport and he obtains a departure or arrival reservation, as appropriate, from ATC. The reservation is granted by ATC whenever the aircraft may be accommodated without significant additional delay to the operations allocated for the airport for which the reservations is requested.

An almost identical exemption for VFR is listed in paragraph (b).

So they're essentially giving you a heads up that ATC can simply turn you away, and will likely do so during peak operation periods. However, during off hours (including hours when High Density rules are not in effect), there is no reason you can't land at even the biggest of [civilian] airports in the US.

High Density Airports currently include Laguardia (KLGA), John F. Kennedy (KJFK), Newark (KEWR), Reagan National (KDCA), and O'Hare (KORD).


LGA and DCA require a slot reservation during most hours for unscheduled operations through the e-CVRS system.

In addition, DCA has very strict requirements which allow for only 48 GA flights each day. Among the requirements:

See the whole list on the TSA's website.

And don't forget, the Washington, DC area has special flight rules in general. In other words, don't ever expect to land at DCA unless you have a really good reason.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I used to fly into LGA all of the time, and as long as you plan ahead, it isn't usually a problem to get one. They aren't even that particular about the times, so if you have late passengers they don't normally turn you away as long as you have one, even if it falls outside of your reservation time. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jan 9, 2014 at 0:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your TSA links are dead :( $\endgroup$
    – andrewmh20
    Aug 18, 2016 at 21:30

Must be an American thing to allow GA to land at major airports.

Elsewhere in the world it's pretty much banned. For example if you read the AIP sheet for Heathrow it says "Flights for recreational, commemorative, charity and record breaking purposes, light twin engined private aircraft and all light single engined aircraft will not be permitted to use the airport."

Elsewhere in the world, airports also tend to be located in class A airspace, which are IFR only and not open to VFR traffic. So most PPLs without an IR rating would not be able to get anywhere near the airport anyway.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Class B airspace, in the US. Class A is way up in the sky in most parts of the world. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Jan 8, 2014 at 23:54
  • 18
    $\begingroup$ I think Heathrow is an exception. Most major European airports allow any IFR flight, even if it's a tiny Cessna 172. VFR is another story though. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2014 at 0:27
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ Heathrow is an exception to everything. It's the world's third busiest airport and has only two runways. Plus London has 5 other big international airports and many smaller airports. CDG would be a better example $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2014 at 12:07
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Re: It would seriously hamper General Aviation. ... lots of things hamper GA in the rest of the world, for the start, the lack of cheap gas that the Americans have. $\endgroup$
    – John Doe
    Jan 9, 2014 at 14:47
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ There are other airports with more movements, more runways, more passengers etc: the problem with Heathrow is simply that it's full: you simply can't fit more landing/takeoffs in there without compromising safety. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Dec 10, 2014 at 11:42

You can land anywhere you want, pretty much. It all depends, as others have said, on how much of a landing fee you are willing to pay.

In some cases a large major airport really IS most convenient. My wife and I wanted to visit the Udvar Hazy Air and Space museum during its grand opening in late 2003. Dulles was still under the ridiculously strict DC ADIZ brought about as a result of an overreaction to 9/11.

But the process was well documented by then so we took off from KSNC (Chester) and headed south. I picked up Flight Following just south of Newark. (They tend to vector VFR aircraft out to sea in the Newark area, so I just fly over the Class Bravo.

At some point we were cleared into the ADIZ and were handed off from center to Dulles approach. The approach controller set me up for a loooong base leg that would roll me out on a 2 or 3 mile final. Which made sense. There was no point in putting me in the long procession of commercial aircraft stacked up on 40 mile finals.

About 20 miles out, approach called me and asked if I could give them 160 knots. (I flew an RV4, which was a 175 knot aircraft, but had a very low flap speed of 90 knots). I agreed and pushed the throttle in. A couple of minutes later, I got a request for 170 knots.

I agreed but told them i would require a "nonstandard" turn to final. They agreed. So here I am screaming in at 200 mph in a plane with a 100 mph flap speed set to make a turn to a 2 mile final. Fun fun fun.

I was cleared to land and when the time came I chopped the throttle and rolled into a 100 degree bank with a 4G pull. When I rolled out I was lined up with the centerline and had bled off 75 mph of speed. I continued at about 120 kts until I was about 2000 ft from the first turn off and then dropped full flaps and put the plane into a hard forward slip. We landed about 500 ft before the turn off (we landed on the right runway so the turn off put us between the runways) and I taxi'd tail up to the turn off.

Once clear of the runway, approach thanked me for "expediting". He said I'd understand in about 20 seconds why he rushed me. He told me to contact ground on point something, and I did.

About then a fully loaded 747 roared by on the runway I had just landed on. Not 150 ft from where I sat. We taxied to the FBO, tied down and walked to the museum.

Later that day I spoke to a friend who flies 747s for Atlas and he explained that a small behind a heavy would require 4 minutes wait for wake turbulence to clear. With a heavy behind a small, as long as I was clear, the heavy would land.

Fun fun fun. At the time I was flying formation aerobatics so i was on my game. I was flying 2-3 times a week and very very proficient. I looked at the request for a nonstandard approach as a fun challenge. If I ever felt uncomfortable, I would simply reply "unable".

Remember, the pilot is in charge of the aircraft. As I referenced above. NY approach tends to vector small piston aircraft out to sea. I had this happen to me exactly once. When he asked me to turn even further out, I cancelled flight following and bid him a good day. Eff him. Ever since then I generally don't call when over NY's class Bravo. Or if I do, I make sure I'm above 7500 so I can cancel FF if they want me to do anything I don't want to do. I'm all for working in the system, but I will not be put in danger so that a busy controller can have an easier day.


  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Dulles is still under the DC SFRA, which requires a flight plan with specific entry bearing and destination airport, plus squawk and talk. It's unlikely these rules will be relaxed in our lifetime. $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Jul 22, 2015 at 16:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 100 degree bank? Really? $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Aug 9, 2019 at 21:06

The short answer is that it depends on the airport, and on the day and time of day. Not all Class Bs are equal, and traffic density differs with the seasons and times of day.

On paper, SeaTac is fairly quiet for a class B; it sees about 945 operations a day on 3 runways (the third one being recent, opening in late 2008). The problems with the airport are in the ground facilities layout; every terminal that is the origin or destination of a flight at SeaTac is on the east side of the runway complex. That means up to 2/3 of flights require at least one runway crossing during taxi, and with a plane taking off or landing every four minutes on each runway, there's no time to dawdle. Very generous ILS holds due to the varying runway lengths further congest the usable taxiways. One GA pilot, unfamiliar with the traffic flow, can really throw a wrench in the works. As Jason Malinowski said in his answer, if you just want to touch and go they can probably get you in on the newest runway, but if you're planning on parking there you'll likely be staring up at the south end of a passenger jet for a while.

By contrast, an airport like Sky Harbor, which sees 1,200 operations a day on the same number of runways, is more efficiently laid out, with a center passenger terminal complex between the two longest runways, and most GA facilities located to the south of the complex along with cargo and ANG terminals, all conveniently next to 7R/25L (the shortest runway at 7800 feet, more or less reserved for small craft). Sky Harbor therefore tends to be a little friendlier to small singles and twins on XC flights (or just logging Bravo time for a student/rec endorsement).

DFW, larger still (1,800 ops/day), could easily be thought of as two different co-located airports with a common road system. Runway 17L/35R on the east side is specifically intended for use by GA craft including small props, with the other four primary north-south runways serving larger passenger flights (typically the inside runway on each side is for takeoffs and the outside for landings), so provided you can keep pace on the radio you're just fine flying your small prop into DFW (they discourage practice flights though). However, the winds in the area are less constant; when a front from the Gulf brings winds out of the southeast, the entire airport runs on just two auxilliary 13/31 strips. In that situation, the East Tower primarily responsible for GA all but closes to small craft, and nearby Love Field as well as the numerous Class Ds in the Metroplex (Addison, Dallas Exec, Spinks, Meacham, Alliance) see a significant uptick in small props and business jets.

O'Hare is just busy; no two ways around it. When the winds are favorable it has four runways on which to handle about 2400 flights a day (that's a plane taking off or landing from each runway every two and a half minutes on average), and when winds are out of one of the secondary compass points, each of the two usable runways will see a plane rolling down it every 75 seconds. A quick scan of the complex on Google Earth shows exactly one small twin in the entire complex, at Signature Flight Support toward the northeast. Everything else I see is at least a 50-place regional. They'll work you in if they can, as Fab's answer proves, but I'd be wary of duplicating his flight with the winds out of the southeast. Midway, closer to downtown, does seem to cater more to small props, but even then with Southwest's expanded schedule into this airport I imagine you'd be in for a fairly closely-spaced approach. As a result, I'd say if you were planning a private flight into the Chicago area, you should plan on landing at one of the class Ds, like Chicago Exec, Gary or Waukeegan.


If you go into any big airport you had better be organized and prepared. First of all be alert with you communications, ATC gives instructions once and expects you to understand what is being said and that expect you to do it, they may not have the time for seconds. The more they have to work with pilots that do not know the airport or procedures only loads the system and sets up hazard situations.

Once on the ground have an airport diagram chart open and read to use. I recommend that you have paper and pencil ready to copy a taxi clearance.

When you are at airports like LGA they do not have the normal taxiway signs, the signage is painted in the runways and taxi ways and are difficult to see when the cockpit is low to the ground. Especially when crossing runways that have crowns, Good luck in night conditions. The big airplanes with pilots that se 20 feet above the airport do not have that problem.

Other than that, no problem.


I trained out of Nashville International Airport on Cessnas. Generally, ATC was great about finding ways to fit you in to the pattern with the commercial airliners. Occasionally, they would ask you to circle east of the airport for a little while if they were busy, but even then, they were pretty efficient about bringing the GA planes home. (May have helped that BNA had three parallel runways, so often they could bring the smaller planes in on the center runway without disrupting the larger jets.)


Since Seattle was mentioned in the original poster's question:

I recently asked one of the SeaTac approach controllers at a conference about this, they said they were completely fine with it. As long as you asked early enough so they can get you sequenced in, they can put you on 16R/34L and you are out of the way of other traffic. That runway is fairly new (built in 2008), and so perhaps it was more of a problem years ago when they only had two.

In some cases, they might clear you for the option instead of clearing you to land. That way, you have plausible deniability that you did land, and might get out of a landing fee.


I've flown into Chicago Midway before (as part of my IFR long XC training flight). It was fun. :-)

In the USA, if you're IFR they have to take you. They can refuse VFR flights though. However, at the ATC seminar I was at the other night, he mentioned that while they have to take IFR flights of any size, nothing says when they have to take you. During the airline pushes you may get stuck in a hold for a couple of hours if they've already got a big stack of airliners, so it can be in your best interest to divert elsewhere, hang around on the ground until your hold time would have been up, then just hop over VFR...

  • $\begingroup$ IFR traffic is supposed to be handled on a first-come-first-serve basis in the US.... $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Apr 5, 2014 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ True in general, but major airports have IFR slot reservations during special events and other very busy times when they're at full operational capacity. Some people are more equal than others... :-) $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2014 at 14:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Absolutely, and if a slot is required then you need to get one in advance so you will know whether or not you need one and if you don't have one then you will probably have to hold or go somewhere else. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Apr 5, 2014 at 14:12

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