There's several incidents of "flights to nowhere", e.g. https://onemileatatime.com/klm-787-nine-hour-flight-to-nowhere/

After a pilot decides to turn back, how is this handled from a routing/flight plan/ATC perspective? I assume ATC needs a flight plan back to the airport; is this just generated "on the fly"? Who does this, ATC or the airline's dispatch?

I'm not talking about a diversion to the nearest airport but actually returning to the origin airport after the flight's been underway for a while. I assume this needs to be coordinated with all the FIRs/centers.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think it might be handled differently than any other unplanned enroute diversion? You'd simply request clearance back to your origin. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2021 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ I guess that's how it would work in theory, but say if I'm halfway over the Atlantic, would ATC actually give a clearance back to the origin and would they plan the route on my behalf? $\endgroup$
    – Mark Wang
    Mar 22, 2021 at 6:01
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    $\begingroup$ It also depends on why they turn back. If they declare an emergency, they're allowed to do pretty much anything. $\endgroup$
    – forest
    Mar 22, 2021 at 10:07
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    $\begingroup$ ATC doesn't flight plan for the crew. The captain would likely request direct, or via a fix or two presuming that they are familiar with the route. ATC will generally clear them as requested, or may modify as needed for separation or procedural requirements. And the clearance limit would likely be the origin airport. $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2021 at 14:31

2 Answers 2


A diversion is a diversion, regardless of whether it is to the nearest airport, back to your origin airport or some other airport that is attractive, which may depend on what sort of facilities are needed (gates, fuel, maintenance, etc.).

The pilot simply tells ATC their new destination, and ATC amends their flight plan and gives the pilot a new clearance to follow. Depending on how far it is, the pilot (with the help of their dispatcher, if applicable) may request a specific route, or they may leave it up to ATC. That flight plan update is also automatically forwarded to all the relevant FIRs, just like the original version was.

  • $\begingroup$ How would ATC determine the detailed route? It's not like we know every waypoint and airway in every country by heart, let alone all the different usage restrictions. And how would it be communicated? - Dedicated ATFN FPL (APL, ACH, ...?) telegram or coordinated manually? $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2021 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ @expeditedescent Is this the one area where the FAA is actually ahead of the rest of the world? When we file a flight plan, either on the ground or in the air, we can request whatever we want (such as “direct destination”) and the FAA computers automatically “fix” it to comply with all applicable rules, then ATC gives us back the resulting clearance (either CPDLC or voice). $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Mar 22, 2021 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, if you're staying within the same country (or maybe just wants to cross a single border) - no problem. But if a long haul flight has to turn around half way, crossing through several countries on the way, I doubt a single click of a button would be enough. Maybe not a very common problem in the USA since you do not border a lot of countries? $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2021 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ @expeditedescent Considering our vast OCAs, including a large chunk of the Caribbean, the US borders far more countries (or at least FIRs) than it may appear. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Mar 22, 2021 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ Having done a turn back over the Indian ocean back to middle east, I used both my knowledge of the surrounding sectors, another aircraft that was heading to the same region and a world airways chart that was available with our flight data coordinators (they manage the ATC data in the system). This resulted in a not perfect route but one that got them to there desitnation. This is picked up by the down stream controllers and corrected as it gets to them. As my instructor once said, track direct destination is still a legal instruction to get them going in the right direction. $\endgroup$
    – Bullfrog
    Jun 20, 2021 at 11:31

If you, as an airliner, make a midflight request to return to your departure airport, we will get you your clearance.

This would be a very unusual request, though, and you can expect some follow-up questions from ATC, regarding the reason for turning around. (probably some prompting from a supervisor in the background)

If it is not an urgent situation, you can expect a normal arrival routing to your new destination.

That may not be the end of it. You should expect further clarification being required, since you are hauling passengers for hire. This may be handled by your company, of course.


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