It has been a week since Cross the Pond Eastbound 2020 took place on VATSIM. The bi-annual event is by far the most popular and most talked-about even in the VATSIM calendar and this year brought a handful of changes to how the system worked. Whilst Serge did a good job expressing how he felt about the changes (in particular to the lottery system), I wanted to reflect on the event itself and offer some further thoughts on what future events could bring.
This Year’s Event
Let me start by coming clean; I flew without a slot. I know, I know, the communication was clear that those who wanted to fly online during the Saturday should avoid the Atlantic, but I was prepared to be placed on a non-event track, have huge delays and be at the bottom of the queue for any push back slots. I had nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon after all.
Loading up at Chicago at 10:30z, the airfield was somewhat quiet with planes slowly spawning in and controllers coming online. Flying from one of the busiest airports on the network was bound to create some delays and issues, but the whole process was nice and smooth. All of the controllers did an amazing job at keeping their cool whilst dealing with requests and even the handling of some issues with slot times. So whilst I sat on the ground, I requested a slot and was initially told 11:44z I would be able to leave. Perfect, I thought, and get ready to leave 15 minutes beforehand to ensure I would take off as close to the slot as possible. For whatever reason, the slot time wasn’t then passed on to the ramp controller and subsequently, I then had to wait until 13:15z before I was cleared to take off to Heathrow.
Whilst that may sound like a huge delay, I was non-event traffic and the numerous notifications on VPilot about pilots like me clearly meant there was no rush for non-event pilots to get involved. I didn’t mind waiting at all and actually gave me a chance to sit back and listen to the frequency whilst the rush of traffic started to really ramp up. From what I could tell, there were very few delays and traffic flowed out of O’Hare just fine. One thing I noticed, and future pilots REALLY need to pay attention to is the slot time itself.
I found that many pilots were joining the network on the slot time itself. This meant that controllers were regularly shuffling aircraft around due to missed slots. Pilots: remember your slot time listed is the time you should be expecting departure clearance, not joining VATSIM. This would help keep queues down and the workload for the controllers to a minimum. That said, the pressure was handled well and very few delays seemed to happen for the departure.
13:00z rolled around and I pushed back and began my taxi to the runway for my departure. The controllers during the departure, climb and first few hundred miles were energetic, full of life and super helpful, despite being the early hours of the morning for many of them. Pilots responded well to instructions and controllers were happy to assist those that perhaps needed a bit more time or the messages to be passed via text. There was a sense of cohesion and felt very structured. Don’t get me wrong, it was clearly busy, but it didn’t feel panicked or stressful on either side of the scope.
As I continued my 7-hour flight to Heathrow, I was soon approaching the Atlantic ocean. Being non-event traffic, I had a maximum cruise altitude of FL290 and had to fly along NATS, which pushed me away from pretty much all of the action. Whilst I can appreciate these restrictions were in place to mitigate too much congestion, I felt there could have been a little bit more flexibility on these tight restrictions. Before I get onto that, one tool that was super helpful this year was the inclusion of the natTRAK tool.
I believe that natTRAK has been used before, but this was my first proper experience using it during Cross the Pond. In fact, I think (correct me if I’m wrong) that this is the first time all traffic had to use it instead of changing frequencies and requesting clearance. This is much more in line with real-world operations and makes things so much easier. I know from experience that swapping frequencies, reading out a rather lengthy request and then swapping back to the domestic was always confusing. natTRAK made that all so much easier and helped assist the controllers to be much more prepared for the traffic. Whilst there were some issues with requests not reaching pilots before reaching the track, the experience overall felt much better than ever before.
Now on NATS, things sadly didn’t work out quite as hoped. Gander airspace had numerous technical issues which meant that traffic on the west side of the Atlantic had no ATC for a large portion of the event. This wasn’t isolated to non-event and impacted hundreds of pilots making their way across the ocean. Despite best efforts, the airspace eventually just gave up (with no warning) and completely went offline and left people wondering what exactly had happened. Even though VATSIM was keen to remind pilots (ahem) to not fly if they were non-event, there was zero communication from them about what had happened to one of the most pivotal controllers for the event.
Whilst I am aware that non-event traffic had the lowest priority of all the traffic, it felt like we were completely left out in the lurch during the event. Whilst my expectations were clear that we shouldn’t fly, I think there needed to be a little more inclusion for those that were flying and were ready to be patient. Once in the track, that was it, I was stuck at FL290 and flying way north of all of the other traffic.I felt like I was flying offline with AI traffic in some regards simply because there was no traffic within at least 100 miles of me at any time. It took away some of the excitement I usually expect from the flight (a nice full TCAS) and controllers were strict about not allowing any deviation from FL290. Going forward, controllers should be able to take initiative and allow for deviations if non-event is quieter than expected.
With the Atlantic now behind me, I was handed over to Scottish control to start helping us reach Heathrow. Of course, taking off at 13:15z meant that I was now entering the area at one of the peak times. Flying just over Manchester I was told to reduce speed down to Mach 0.70 and to expect multiple holds. This was because of the heavy traffic in the area, more so than the fact I was non-event traffic. That said, it’s expected when approaching London to hold simply because the airspace is genuinely so busy. This is not uncommon for London airports.
Others who I spoke to had straight in approaches to airports such as Amsterdam and Stockholm.
Above: Guillaume having a blast in the 767 on his way to Amsterdam.
Either way, the controllers right across the UK were exceptional. Everyone was helpful, providing hold details in the text chat, and giving people plenty of time to comply with the instructions. There was a clear sense of urgency from the controllers, but it’s understandable when a wave of aircraft was fast approaching from over the horizon.
Despite holding multiple times, everything felt very accommodating and I held in a single hold for no longer than 10 minutes. As I approached Heathrow, it was fast-paced, but not too fast pilots couldn’t cope. Even though I approached the wrong runway (my bad, sorry Heathrow approach), the landing was smooth and taxiing to stand was done.
Engines off, parking brake on, and another Cross the Pond all wrapped up.
This year’s event felt much more organised than ever before. With the improvements to the voice codec, the use of natTRACK and discouraging non-event traffic, Cross the Pond Eastbound 2020 felt like a success from this pilot’s perspective. That said, it’s not without further improvement in the future.
I can already sense some of you have rushed to the comment section to tell me how wrong it was of me to fly as non-event traffic despite how clear VATSIM were. For me, the lottery system still doesn’t provide the best solution to the issue of too many pilots for the availability of slots. I think Cross the Pond will continue to remain one of the most popular events on the network, but some changes would be welcome going forward.
Lottery System Improvements
The lottery system makes some sense. It saves people hoping that their internet can survive the masses of people checking the slot page and hoping to get their own. At the same time, the random nature of the slot system can feel unfair to those who have been loyal to VATSIM and also those who may have more experience in these events. In no way would I want to discourage newcomers to join the event, but Cross the Pond is a busy event and requires some experience with the aircraft and using the network.
I think a fairer way to provide slots would be to continue using the lottery system but with requirements for pilots to complete some kind of test or prove their experience. “Educate” is in the slogan of VATSIM yet there isn’t anyway of validating this when joining the event. Ensuring there was a form of education before the event starts would make for a fairer playing field and also give controllers/fellow pilots that everyone in the event has the minimum knowledge required to participate. Furthermore, those who take part in the pilot training on VATSIM should get some priority in the lottery.
Another improvement I would make would be to validate the slot that’s provided. I know that many people received their slot information and then either couldn’t make it or simply didn’t want to fly as the slot didn’t suit their needs anymore. Going forward, I think VATSIM should request that a slot is still required from the user within a specific time frame of it being received. If the user doesn’t confirm the slot, then they lose it and back to the pot it goes for someone else to potentially fly it.
VATSIM are clearly aware of the popularity of Cross the Pond. So why not make it a whole weekend event? More opportunities for controllers and ultimately more slots for pilots to take advantage of. Even if the slots were not hugely increased, spacing them out over a two day period would make things a lot more flexible for pilots around the world.
Two Way Traffic
The concept of hundreds of pilots swarming across the Atlantic in one direction is what makes the event so special. But why is it limited to one-way crossings? Now that pilots don’t need to supply position reports, why not add to the challenge and add two-way traffic. Ditch the whole Eastbound/Westbound sub-events and let’s see how both sides handle traffic both ways. I feel this would also relieve the huge amounts of pressure on airports for both arrival and departure airports as things will be more spaced out rather than all departures and arrivals happening within a specific time.
Smaller Events; More Often
Whilst the bi-annual nature of the event adds to the hype and excitement, having events that cross the pond more often can only benefit the network. I’m not suggesting full-scale events, but perhaps smaller-scale operations between airports could create for more training opportunities (controllers and pilots) and also help reduce the requirement for pilots begging for a slot in CTP.
One of the bigger issues during the event was the fact that Gander was down for a good chunk of the event and never appeared online again. This was a stark contrast to other controller areas in the Atlantic who did a great job at handling things. Perhaps a common pool of controllers for the Atlantic be easier to roster such events and also take over should issues arise in future events. After all, you can’t have an event focusing on crossing the pond when half of it was unmanned.
What do you think?
Those are just my thoughts on how Cross the Pond can continue to grow, but also remain fun, exciting and enjoyable for pilots around the world. How else do you think VATSIM could address concerns going forward? How was your Cross the Pond experience this year?
Post your thoughts down below!