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Understanding ATC Handoffs


An ATC handoff occurs when a controller transfers an aircraft to next controller along the aircraft’s route. Here is a basic explanation provided by an active Air Traffic Controller and CFII:

Handoffs happen in 3 Steps…

  1. Transfer of radar identification
    1. When the aircraft nears the boundary of the next sector, we begin the radar handoff
    2. This usually occurs about 3 minutes from the boundary, though times vary widely by controller preference
    3. This referred to as “flashing” at the next sector
  2. Transfer of communications
    1. Once the receiving the controller accepts the handoff (step 1) communications are transferred
    2. “Contact XXX on XXX.XX”
    3. This is the part where airlines like to ignore controllers and make us repeat ourselves multiple times
  3. Transfer of control
    1. This occurs once the aircraft crosses the boundary between sectors
    2. At this point, the receiving controller is now in complete control of the flight

Important notes…

  • After Step 1 begins, but prior to step 3, neither the receiving controller nor the transferring controller can change anything regarding the flight without verbally communicating with the other controller.
  • This is usually when you’ll get a reply of “Standby”, since we need to perform coordination first
  • If the flight is entering another sector in the same center, this can happen quickly, as we have instant communication lines between sectors
  • If the flight is entering another facility, such as going from center to approach, or from one center to another, we have to call the other sector. Sometimes it takes a while for them to answer.


Chris Pezalla is  an active flight instructor and publisher of the Advanced Guide To Holding Patterns. For a free preview of his book on Amazon Click Here.



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