An airport is an airport, but that doesn’t mean you know everything about it… There is help out there, for free, and sometimes it’s very useful! The UNICOM is a tool that many pilots overlook all too frequently.
The purpose the the air to ground UNICOM or “universal communications” is an asset for pilots and when used correctly can be very beneficial! Not every airport or fixed base operator has an active UNICOM that is always manned, however, when a UNICOM is available the breadth of non-control services can be extensive. I group UNICOM capabilities into two groups: airport operational and support services. Let’s take a look at the two in a little more detail…
When visiting an unfamiliar airport, the major items of concern are typically related to aircraft storage (short and long-term) and fuel. Often times at a towered airport the controllers can provide directions to visitor parking and UNICOM or “company” frequencies for the Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) on the field. The UNICOM operator at a non towered airport will be able to provide similar help, providing basic instructions for where a pilot can go for short and long-term aircraft parking. A call to the UNICOM can result in directions to the visitor parking area, as opposed to an aircraft taxiing to where the pilot THINKS the parking will be, only to have to start that aircraft again and taxi to another location, or if the pilot’s guess was close a line service representative can tow the aircraft to the proper location.
Similarly, a call to the UNICOM can result in proper instructions for fueling. Some airports have fuel trucks that can fuel the aircraft where ever it is parked, but at other, usually smaller airports the pilot must bring the aircraft to a fuel farm for fueling. Again, making the call is much easier than parking, only to have to move the aircraft to the fueling location and then to the proper storage location.
I can’t stress this enough, but when a pilot calls the UNICOM to get proper directions the pilot is saving themselves and the airport/FBO staff effort which is often wasted when a pilot doesn’t ask for advisories. Again the service is free and it exists to HELP you, so please, use it!
I group the myriad of other information times a pilot can learn from a UNICOM into the Support Services section. These include answers to questions such as, “How’s it looking down there?” Often asked when official weather information isn’t available and the pilot wants to know the airport staff member’s (who is locates on the ground) opinion. Other services would include calling a taxi, so that the pilot/passengers don’t have to wait upon their arrival.
Taking the support a step further, if the pilot really knows what they are doing, the pilot will call in to advise of their intensions. This type of communication will be along the lines of, “Cessna 12345, we’ll be on the ground in 10 minutes and will need fuel and a place to park.” This is a “pro move” and it is something you’ll hear those corporate pilots do to ensure their customers have a top-notch experience. Making this type of call allows the airport/FBO staff to prepare for your arrival, and be ready for you, again this makes your life easier!
One last thing, you never know what you missed that the UNICOM will catch for you… A certain pilot I know once decided to amend their sight-seeing flight and decided to land at a coastal airport so their passenger could experience the approach over the beaches. You can imagine the pilot’s surprise when the UNICOM responded to a call about if the restaurant was open with the message, “I hope your Cessna is a helicopter because our runway is closed.” Sure enough as the pilot got closer they noticed large yellow X’s on the runway, which was freshly paved and hadn’t even been marked yet! Obviously the pilot would have noticed the X’s and not landed, but this is a great example of a UNICOM providing helpful information!
As you can see there are a great deal of benefits of utilizing the UNICOM when visiting an airport, try it out next time you fly! Just remember, the UNICOM is a non-control, advisory service.
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9