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Communication in Atc - Inadequate Communication in Air Traffic

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Inadequate Communication in Air Traffic Safety

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University


Effective communication is the backbone of the air traffic control system. Although the system is fairly sound, there are several areas in which communication is lacking. Ambiguous regulations can often contribute to aircraft accidents and runway incursions. The English language itself is sometimes a barrier to effective international communication. Of course, human factors are a central part of the success or failure of communication. If we are to maintain a solid air traffic system, our regulations need to more appropriately address human factors.

Inadequate Communication in Air Traffic Safety

The international air traffic control system we use today is based upon the timely and accurate exchange of information between pilots and air traffic controllers. For the most part, the way we communicate is straightforward, but there are a number of variables that can render our messages useless. For example, the official language in worldwide air traffic control is English, but it's not always the same [italics added] English. There are many differences, ranging from subtle to obvious, which affect our ability to both understand and be understood. If our communication is to be effective, we must ensure that it is clear, concise, and most importantly, unmistakable in meaning.


The First Controller

When Air Traffic Control [ATC] first appeared at St. Louis' Lambert Field around 1929, the 'control tower' consisted of nothing more than a man, Archie William League, positioned near the runway with a pair of signal flags. With these flags, he would direct aircraft, as appropriate, to either 'go' or 'hold' (Archie William League, n.d.). Although primitive by today's standards, this practice proved to be an effective method for communicating necessary control instructions to pilots.

The Need for Change

In the early days of ATC, the airport environment was the only controlled airspace in existence. Once a pilot departed an airport, he was on his own. ATC never effectively managed the total flow of air traffic until after 1956, when two aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128 people. In 1958, the Federal Aviation Act was passed and the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] was created in order to establish and run "a broad air traffic control system to maintain safe separation of all commercial aircraft through all phases of flight" (The Federal Aviation Act of 1958, n.d.). As a result, the FAA established air traffic procedures involving the use of radar, radios, and human beings. These procedures have long been the mainstay of civil ATC.


Federal regulations have been in place for many years to ensure air traffic safety, consistency and accountability. FAA Order 7110.65 has been the air traffic control 'bible' since the mid-1970s, prescribing specific procedures and phraseology for controllers. Unfortunately, too many of these procedures have been 'written in blood'--that is, brought about as a result of an aircraft accident. Such an example is the implementation of wake turbulence procedures for aircraft following a Boeing 757 (National Transportation Safety Board, n.d.).

Communication in Ground Operations

Runway Incursions

Runway incursions occur when an aircraft, vehicle, or pedestrian enters a runway and creates an unsafe condition. For the past few years, runway incursions have been a prime concern of the FAA's Runway Safety Program.

Since 2001, the major cause of all reported incursions has been pilot error, followed by controller, vehicle, and pedestrian error. (Runway Incursion Totals CY02 vs. CY01, n.d.). This indicates that our biggest problem is pilots either don't hear or don't understand ATC instructions. This misunderstanding can't be blamed solely on the pilots, though. A number of human factors can contribute to the apparent breakdown in communication: fatigue, expectancy, inadequate readback vs. hearback, and ambiguous terminology, to name just a few.

The ATC regulations on 'what to say and when to say it' are adequate in most cases, but not perfect. There are certain cases when the ATC system lends itself to being



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