It's easy to recognize inexperienced air traffic controllers on the radio, just as it's easy to recognize a student pilot on frequency because student pilots and controllers-in-training have a lot in common. The student pilot is learning to control their aircraft in a safe manner while simultaneously talking and coordinating with ATC, but they don't have much experience. The new controller is figuring out how to manage aircraft in their airspace and on their taxiways, learning to be the voice of authority that pilots will listen to and respect, and they don't have much experience either.
As a flight instructor, I can relate to the controller-in-training situation because they are often working with another controller who is acting as their instructor.
If you fly regularly and talk to ATC or if you read any of the blogs by FAA air traffic control specialists, it's pretty clear that the FAA is in a tight spot. Experienced controllers are retiring at an pace never seen before, the FAA can't seem to hire and train new controllers fast enough, and the ones that are hired have their hands full: Low pay, long hours, and a lot to learn in a short time. In spite of this situation, ATC consistently provides excellent service the majority of the time, even while showing the ropes to new controllers.
Most pilots have overheard a controller interacting with an inexperienced or a less-than-competent pilot, trying to work out some issue or another. Usually the controller is just trying to figure out the pilot's intentions. When a controller is patient, relaxed, and friendly, the end result is more likely to be positive for all concerned. When a controller is under stress and gets impatient, rude, or angry, the end result is not so good: Pilots walk away with a bad feeling that can foster an adversarial relationship with ATC rather than a sense of partnership. The same thing can happen when pilots are surly toward controllers, but this is not saying anything new.
My philosophy as a flight instructor is to let the pilot I'm instructing make some mistakes on the radio, up to a point. I want my students to be confident that if they get confused, they will able to work things out with ATC. When a controller's workload is high, I'm not bashful about intervening on the radio to prevent needless confusion and mayhem that may only serve to increase the controller's stress level. For example, I will respond to an ATC instruction when the frequency is crowded and the pilot I'm instructing does not respond in a timely fashion. This gives a positive example to the pilot of how to respond promptly while preserving the controller's tempo and pacing.
I regularly hear student pilots or pilots with little experience whose radio technique can only be described as awful and there are two basic reasons: Flight instructors who pass on their own sloppy technique and certificated pilots who know better, but are out of practice or simply content to be sloppy. There are plenty of good sources of information on the internet about aviation radio technique and I've even written about this topic a bit in the past. Based on some of the pilots I've heard out there, it's obvious that many flight instructors aren't providing enough training in radio communications.
Instructors need to set high standards for radio communications and ensure that students meet those standards, especially before conferring solo privileges. A lot of radio practice and drilling can be done on the ground, outside of the aircraft, without noise and distraction, and without burning any fuel or wasting ATC's time. Pilots who fly infrequently can study and practice radio communications by simply listening to ATC chatter in their off time. Internet sites like Live ATC let you listen to ATC on your computer, but remember that you'll hear bad radio technique mixed in with the good: Emulate the good technique, recognize and eschew the bad.
With all the controllers-in-training out there, an experienced pilot or instructor often finds themselves being handled by an inexperienced controller. Just the other day, a tower controller asked us to expedite our exit from the runway for traffic on a half mile final. I'm all for helping out controllers and other pilots, but in this case the controller had violated an unspoken rule: She made this request just as we entered the landing flare and before any of our wheels had actually touched pavement. To make matters worse, I was trying to help the pilot solidify his landing technique in a new, and heavily-loaded, high-performance Cessna. I thought about giving some on-the-air feedback about her timing, but I just bit my tongue and hoped that an instructor was standing by on the other side of the radio.
Like pilots, experienced controllers can get sloppy, too. Flying practice approaches with a student the other day, she checked in with her altitude and asked for a practice ILS approach. The controller gave her a heading to fly and a climb to 3000 feet. I had to opine that 3000' would put us in Class Bravo, that we were currently VFR, and the controller had not explicitly cleared us to enter Bravo. So she asked the controller to verify she was cleared to enter Class Bravo and he said something like "If I give you an altitude in Bravo, you are cleared to go there ..." I winced and said "Unfortunately he's wrong, he should say the words 'cleared to enter class Bravo' and you were right to ask for clarification."
I explain to instrument rating candidates the procedure that controllers are supposed to follow for RNAV approaches, but some controllers don't seem to be up to speed - they'll vector you to a point inside the Intermediate Fix rather than clearing you direct to the Initial Approach Fix or the Intermediate Fix. Frankly, I don't think many controllers out there have any idea of the level of sophistication that exists in newer GA aircraft and that pilots of these aircraft can fly autopilot coupled approaches that can join the final approach course more accurately than any vectoring the controller might be willing to offer. Air traffic control's lack of understanding of RNAV approach procedures (combined with other mistakes) have contributed to at least one fatal accident that I know of in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I teach instrument candidates to refer to an RNAV (GPS) approach as an RNAV approach, even though many controllers still refer to these as GPS approaches. I can appreciate how changes to en route, approach and departure procedures might be confusing, especially if controllers (and pilots) are not kept up to speed. Both the FAA Order 7110.65S and the Instrument Procedures Handbook state that “GPS” is not included in the ATC approach clearance for these procedures. It's a small thing that a lot of the controllers and pilots out there can't seem to get right.
When considering the separate, but intersecting worlds that pilots and controllers inhabit, it would be ideal if both sides were to develop some understanding of the other's world. Pilots are certainly free to read Order 7110.65S and controllers could be encouraged to ride along in an aircraft from time to time. I can't get any good data on the percentage of controllers who also hold pilot certificates, but when I did a tour of Oakland Center many years ago I recall being told it was only around 20%.
I recall when doing a tour of the KPAO tower that same year that tower controllers were encouraged to do annual jumpseat rides so they could observe what goes on in a cockpit. My understanding is that this practice stopped after 9/11 due to security concerns and a lack of cooperation between the various agencies involved. Too bad that approach controllers don't get to ride along in a GA airplane and appreciate the results of a slam-dunk vector to an approach into a busy airport.
Operation Raincheck, which encouraged pilots to visit ATC control towers, TRACON, and ARTCC facilities now seems to accomplished at the discretion of the facility's management. Some facilities still encourage these visits, but they are not nearly as widespread as they used to be. That's a shame because it allowed pilots to listen in with a controller and see all the stuff they were doing while simultaneously talking to aircraft crews. I sat in with a center controller covering Northern California and when a pilot requested an IFR clearance, departed and then cancelled IFR the controller muttered something like "I don't know what that was all about, it's VFR in Redding." When I suggested that the pilot might be practicing his IFR techniques in VFR conditions so he'll not be rusty when he needs to use them for real, the controller said "Oh ... you're probably right ..."
Just a few things to think about while you ply the skies in a small aircraft, or sit in front of a radar screen, or peer out the window of a tower cab.