Cleared to Land

Q: Several minutes prior to landing, the cabin crew will often chime in with, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have been cleared to land, so please be sure…” It’s my understanding that a plane cannot be cleared to land unless there are no other planes on the runway. How can this be true when we’re still miles from landing, and how would the flight attendants know?

It’s not, and they wouldn’t. The cabin crew has no idea when the pilots have been cleared to land — an event that can occur many miles out, or, in some cases, only seconds prior to touchdown. They use this expression for convenience.

In the mean time, it is not true that a runway must be vacant for a flight to receive landing clearance. Airplanes are cleared to land all the time when arriving or departing flights are still on the strip. It simply means they may go ahead and land without further communication. If the runway is not eventually vacant, the clearance will be canceled.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.