I did my training around the Seattle area, and was told that landing at SeaTac Airport (the region's major International/Commercial airport), while not strictly forbidden, was definitely frowned upon because it can slow down and interfere with the big planes on schedules. To discourage GA aircraft from using the big airport, they have a variety of landing fees, ramp fees, and prior-approval requirements.
But later, I moved near MCI, and was told that landing at the big airport was no big deal. That they're actually happy to have little planes there.
If you fly small GA planes, do you land at the major airports in your area?
What advanced preparations can you make to minimize your impact on the "big boys", and remain a good airspace citizen?
Can you? Absolutely, and air traffic control will treat you (almost) like any other airplane. You are supposedly handled on a first-come-first-serve basis (reality is slightly different with different aircraft speeds, etc.). Do the airlines like it if you slow them down? No, but it's part of the system and the way that it works.
Very often, there are multiple runways at bigger airports, and sometimes there are even shorter runways that are dedicated for airplanes that don't need to land on the same one as the "big boys". Even if not, they will work you in.
Now, that being said, very often there is a better option. As you said, there are usually high fees at the big airports, so landing at a smaller satellite airport can often save you money and save you time because you won't have to taxi as far or sit and wait in line to get out. An extra 15 minutes by car can be better than an extra 30 minutes while taxiing.
As far as being prepared, it isn't really much different than smaller airports other than the fact that ATC is much busier. They don't have the time/tolerance to keep repeating instructions to you, and expect you to be "on your game". When they rattle off taxi instructions like "Cessna N1234, taxi to the ramp via Alpha, Tango, Echo, and Xray. Hold short of runway 23." they expect a quick readback and for you to follow instructions exactly because they need to move on to the next guy.
It will also help everyone out if you don't fly your final approach the way that most people are taught for an entire 10 mile final: very close to your actual landing speed. In fact, you are usually landing on a runway that is 4X+ the distance that you need and you can slow down fairly quickly (especially compared to a jet), so if you can fly an extra 20 (or 80) knots as long as possible, it will be greatly appreciated and keep traffic moving. Make sure that you leave yourself enough time to slow down at the end and above all else, be safe.
Just to add to Lnafziger's answer (which is entirely correct), the FAA has designated five airports as "High Density Traffic Airports" (covered in FAR Part 93 Subpart K) which specifically limit the number of scheduled IFR arrivals, and it's easy to misread that as "you can't land here."
Part 93.129 specifically says:
(a) IFR. The operator of an aircraft may take off or land the aircraft under IFR at a designated high density traffic airport without regard to the maximum number of operations allocated for that airport if the operation is not a scheduled operation to or from a high density airport and he obtains a departure or arrival reservation, as appropriate, from ATC. The reservation is granted by ATC whenever the aircraft may be accommodated without significant additional delay to the operations allocated for the airport for which the reservations is requested.
An almost identical exemption for VFR is listed in paragraph (b).
So they're essentially giving you a heads up that ATC can simply turn you away, and will likely do so during peak operation periods. However, during off hours (including hours when High Density rules are not in effect), there is no reason you can't land at even the biggest of [civilian] airports in the US.
High Density Airports currently include Laguardia (KLGA), John F. Kennedy (KJFK), Newark (KEWR), Reagan National (KDCA), and O'Hare (KORD).
LGA and DCA require a slot reservation during most hours for unscheduled operations through the e-CVRS system.
In addition, DCA has very strict requirements which allow for only 48 GA flights each day. Among the requirements:
See the whole list on the TSA's website.
And don't forget, the Washington, DC area has special flight rules in general. In other words, don't ever expect to land at DCA unless you have a really good reason.
Must be an American thing to allow GA to land at major airports.
Elsewhere in the world it's pretty much banned. For example if you read the AIP sheet for Heathrow it says "Flights for recreational, commemorative, charity and record breaking purposes, light twin engined private aircraft and all light single engined aircraft will not be permitted to use the airport."
Elsewhere in the world, airports also tend to be located in class A airspace, which are IFR only and not open to VFR traffic. So most PPLs without an IR rating would not be able to get anywhere near the airport anyway.
If you go into any big airport you had better be organized and prepared. First of all be alert with you communications, ATC gives instructions once and expects you to understand what is being said and that expect you to do it, they may not have the time for seconds. The more they have to work with pilots that do not know the airport or procedures only loads the system and sets up hazard situations.
Once on the ground have an airport diagram chart open and read to use. I recommend that you have paper and pencil ready to copy a taxi clearance.
When you are at airports like LGA they do not have the normal taxiway signs, the signage is painted in the runways and taxi ways and are difficult to see when the cockpit is low to the ground. Especially when crossing runways that have crowns, Good luck in night conditions. The big airplanes with pilots that se 20 feet above the airport do not have that problem.
Other than that, no problem.
My favourite entry in my logbook is 2013-08-02 KOSH-KORD 1.5 hrs – from Air Venture in Oshkosh straight into Chicago O'Hare, in a Cessna 172 :-)
A friend of mine and I have flown into SFO (with our instructor), and dropped of my friend, who then took a Lufthansa flight to Munich.
So, having flown into SFO, ORD, and SAN (San Diego, the busiest single-runway airport in the US) in a Cessna 172, all VFR, here my observations:
I've flown into Chicago Midway before (as part of my IFR long XC training flight). It was fun. :-)
In the USA, if you're IFR they have to take you. They can refuse VFR flights though. However, at the ATC seminar I was at the other night, he mentioned that while they have to take IFR flights of any size, nothing says when they have to take you. During the airline pushes you may get stuck in a hold for a couple of hours if they've already got a big stack of airliners, so it can be in your best interest to divert elsewhere, hang around on the ground until your hold time would have been up, then just hop over VFR...
Since Seattle was mentioned in the original poster's question:
I recently asked one of the SeaTac approach controllers at a conference about this, they said they were completely fine with it. As long as you asked early enough so they can get you sequenced in, they can put you on 16R/34L and you are out of the way of other traffic. That runway is fairly new (built in 2008), and so perhaps it was more of a problem years ago when they only had two.
In some cases, they might clear you for the option instead of clearing you to land. That way, you have plausible deniability that you did land, and might get out of a landing fee.
because it can slow down and interfere with the big planes on schedules. To discourage GA aircraft from using the big airport, they have a variety of landing fees, ramp fees, and prior-approval requirements. But later, I moved near MCI, and was told that landing at the big airport was no big deal. That they're actually happy to have little planes there. If you fly small GA planes, do you land at the major airports in your area? What advanced preparations can you make to minimize your impact on the "big boys", and remain a good airspace citizen?
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