Over the last several months, AOPA has received numerous complaints of IFR flights not receiving a timely handoff from the terminal radar approach control (tracon) or air route traffic control center (ARTCC) controller to the air traffic control tower. The late handoffs have caused confusion within towers, have increased pilot workload in a critical phase of flight, and can result in potential traffic conflicts. Areas such as Frederick, MD (KFDK), where the control tower does not have radar for traffic awareness appear to be more at risk of late handoffs. Pilots on approach into KFDK should receive a handoff at least seven miles out. But because KFDK lacks radar, the tower cannot monitor inbound traffic and contact the tracon for a handoff if there’s been a delay—a common practice at radar equipped facilities.
Pilots on approach into a towered airport should receive a handoff normally between five and 10 miles from the airport. Pilots should query the controller if a handoff is not provided in a timely manner to ensure there is adequate time for sequencing flights into the airport pattern by the tower controller. Pilots are also responsible for executing the frequency change in a timely manner.
IFR pilots, be aware that the handoff distance varies by air traffic facility and that handoffs may be coordinated to occur at varying times under different conditions. Consider querying the tracon or ARTCC controller as much as 10 miles—and no later than five miles—out from the airport if you have not been advised to contact the tower. When issued the new frequency, check in with the tower controller in a timely manner. If the tower controller was not advised by tracon of your arrival, you may need to work with the controller on sequencing, but never at the expense of flight safety. Use pilot-in-command authority as necessary to ensure safe operations in this critical phase of flight.
VFR pilots who receive flight following service should be aware that the tracon or ARTCC is not required to provide the handoff. It is the pilot’s responsibility to make radio contact with the tower before entering Class D airspace, whether landing at the airport or transiting the airspace.
To increase safety awareness and help reduce accidents, the AOPA Air Safety Institute periodically issues Safety Notices to remind pilots of significant safety topics.