En Route Operations (Part Thirteen)

IFR Cruising Altitude or Flight Level

In controlled airspace, pilots must maintain the altitude or flight level assigned by ATC, although if the ATC clearance assigns “VFR conditions on-top,” an altitude or flight level as prescribed by 14 CFR Part 91, § 91.159 must be maintained. In uncontrolled airspace (except while in a holding pattern of two minutes or less or while turning) if operating an aircraft under IFR in level cruising flight, an appropriate altitude as depicted in the legend of IFR en route high and low altitude charts must be maintained. [Figure 2-66]

Figure 2-66. Cruising altitude or flight level.

Figure 2-66. Cruising altitude or flight level. [click image to enlarge]

When operating on an IFR flight plan below 18,000 feet MSL in accordance with a VFR-on-top clearance, any VFR cruising altitude appropriate to the direction of flight between the MEA and 18,000 feet MSL may be selected that allows the flight to remain in VFR conditions. Any change in altitude must be reported to ATC, and pilots must comply with all other IFR reporting procedures. VFR-on-top is not authorized in Class A airspace. When cruising below 18,000 feet MSL, the altimeter must be adjusted to the current setting, as reported by a station within 100 NM of your position. In areas where weather-reporting stations are more than 100 NM from the route, the altimeter setting of a station that is closest may be used.

 

During IFR flight, ATC advises flights periodically of the current altimeter setting, but it remains the responsibility of the pilot or flight crew to update altimeter settings in a timely manner. Altimeter settings and weather information are available from weather reporting facilities operated or approved by the U.S. National Weather Service, or a source approved by the FAA. Some commercial operators have the authority to act as a government-approved source of weather information, including altimeter settings, through certification under the FAA’s Enhanced Weather Information System.

Flight level operations at or above 18,000 feet MSL require the altimeter to be set to 29.92 inches of mercury (” Hg). A flight level (FL) is defined as a level of constant atmospheric pressure related to a reference datum of 29.92 ” Hg. Each flight level is stated in three digits that represent hundreds of feet. For example, FL 250 represents an altimeter indication of 25,000 feet. Conflicts with traffic operating below 18,000 feet MSL may arise when actual altimeter settings along the route of flight are lower than 29.92 ” Hg. Therefore, 14 CFR Part 91, § 91.121 specifies the lowest usable flight levels for a given altimeter setting range.

Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums (RSVM)

Reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) is a term used to describe the reduction of the standard vertical separation required between aircraft flying at levels between FL 290 (29,000 feet) and FL 410 (41,000 feet) from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet. The purpose; therefore, increases the number of aircraft that can safely fly in a particular volume of airspace. Historically, standard vertical separation was 1,000 feet from the surface to FL 290, 2,000 feet from FL 290 to FL 410 and 4,000 feet above this. This was because the accuracy of the pressure altimeter (used to determine altitude) decreases with height. Over time, air data computers (ADCs) combined with altimeters have become more accurate and autopilots more adept at maintaining a set level; therefore, it became apparent that for many modern aircraft, the 2,000-foot separation was not required . It was, therefore, proposed by ICAO that this be reduced to 1,000 feet.

Between 1997 and 2005, RVSM was implemented in all of Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, North America, South America, and over the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. The North Atlantic implemented initially in March 1997, at FL 330 through FL 370. The entire western hemisphere implemented RVSM FL 290–FL 410 on January 20, 2005.

Only aircraft with specially certified altimeters and autopilots may fly in RVSM airspace, otherwise the aircraft must fly lower or higher than the airspace, or seek special exemption from the requirements. Additionally, aircraft operators (airlines or corporate operators) must receive specific approval from the aircraft’s state of registry in order to conduct operations in RVSM airspace. Non-RVSM approved aircraft may transit through RVSM airspace provided they are given continuous climb throughout the designated airspace, and 2,000 feet vertical separation is provided at all times between the non-RVSM flight and all others for the duration of the climb/descent.

Critics of the change were concerned that by reducing the space between aircraft, RVSM may increase the number of mid-air collisions and conflicts. In the ten years since RVSM was first implemented, not one collision has been attributed to RVSM. In the United States, this program was known as the Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DRVSM).

 

Cruise Clearance

The term “cruise” may be used instead of “maintain” to assign a block of airspace to an aircraft. The block extends from the minimum IFR altitude up to and including the altitude that is specified in the cruise clearance. On a cruise clearance, you may level off at any intermediate altitude within this block of airspace. You are allowed to climb or descend within the block at your own discretion. However, once you start descent and verbally report leaving an altitude in the block to ATC, you may not return to that altitude without an additional ATC clearance. A cruise clearance also authorizes you to execute an approach at the destination airport.

Lowest Usable Flight Level

When the barometric pressure is 31.00 ” Hg or less and pilots are flying below 18,000 feet MSL, use the current reported altimeter setting. When an aircraft is en route on an instrument flight plan, air traffic controllers furnish this information at least once while the aircraft is in the controller’s area of jurisdiction. When the barometric pressure exceeds 31.00 ” Hg, the following procedures are placed in effect by NOTAM defining the geographic area affected: Set 31.00 ” Hg for en route operations below 18,000 feet MSL and maintain this setting until beyond the affected area. ATC issues actual altimeter settings and advises pilots to set 31.00 ” Hg in their altimeter, for en route operations below 18,000 feet MSL in affected areas. If an aircraft has the capability of setting the current altimeter setting and operating into airports with the capability of measuring the current altimeter setting, no additional restrictions apply. At or above 18,000 feet MSL, altimeters should be set to 29.92 ” Hg (standard setting). Additional procedures exist beyond the en route phase of flight.

The lowest usable flight level is determined by the atmospheric pressure in the area of operation. As local altimeter settings fall below 29.92 ” Hg, pilots operating in Class A airspace must cruise at progressively higher indicated altitudes to ensure separation from aircraft operating in the low altitude structure as follows:

Current Altimeter Setting Lowest Usable Flight Level
29.92 or higher 180
29.91 to 29.42 185
29.41 to 28.92 190
28.91 to 28.42 195
28.41 to 27.91 200

When the minimum altitude, as prescribed in 14 CFR Part 91, § 91.159 and 91.177, is above 18,000 feet MSL, the lowest usable flight level is the flight level equivalent of the minimum altitude plus the number of feet specified according to the lowest flight level correction factor as follows:

Altimeter Setting Correction Factor
29.92 or higher  —
29.91 to 29.42 500 feet
29.41 to 28.92 1,000 feet
28.91 to 28.42 1,500 feet
28.41 to 27.91 2,000 feet
27.91 to 27.42 2,500 feet