Communication error Between ATC and Pilot

Communication error Between ATC (Air Traffic Control) and Air China in New York John Fitzgerald Kennedy Airport (JFK)


The communication error happened in 2006, during the time Air China 981 was taxing to the gate when they touched down at runway 22 Right in JFK airport after a long way 12hours schedules fly from Beijing Capital airport China. JFK ATC is trying to lead the aircraft taxing from runway via taxing way J(Juliette) to taxing way A(Alpha) and holing in taxing way MA(Mike, Alpha) and before parked in the gate. However, the conversation wasn’t progress fluently by varies reason. The following paragraph was retrieved from voice record of JFK airport between Air China and ATC communication.

Fortunately, the communication error did not cause any people to be injured or equipment damage in this case. From an international airline operation perspective, we can not blame which one is wrong or right in this case. However, it still remains people to identify the communication error characteristics that led to the incident and then to modify the new efficiency way of communication that can eliminate the simulator problem or minimize the impact for future events.

(Video embedded from YouTube on 22 August 2010)

Some factors may cause Air China 981 pilot to communication error:
1. There may be a lack of English skills from the pilots in command.
Under ICAO (International Civic Aviation Organization) requirement, all the aircraft operating in international airspace should use English as official language for communication. However, due to the different cultural background, Asia pilots have difficulty to use and understand the language especially for those elder pilots. It can be clearly seen that the Air China 981 pilot could not understand the English properly when he was replying to air traffic controller.

2. Fatigue after long time flight will cause the negative impact of communication.
As we know the biggest enemy in aviation safety it is the pilot fatigue. Fatigue will reduce the speed of brain reaction which has directly caused a lot of different errors. After 13 hours of flight journey when the aircraft touch down in JFK airport, those pilots in this aircraft crossed several time zones, irregular working period and noise will also disturb the sleep quality during the flying time. Pilots must deal with sleep deprivation while on nights as well the effect of the trough of the circadian rhythms. As a result it is difficult for pilots to keep working efficiently while feeling sleepy. Therefore, fatigue and circadian rhythms may be one of the main factors which can cause the communication error during the taxing time.

3. Communication conjunction during the peak traffic hour.
New York JFK airport is one of the world’s busiest airports. Hundreds of aircrafts depart and arrive in this airport during the peak hour. One air traffic controller need to guide and manage different aircrafts at the same time, and therefore, when all people communicate at the same time, there may be aircraft communication conjunction.

Communication error in Aviation human factor perspective

Liveware-Liveware interface

Controller & Pilot
Under “SCHELL” Aviation human factor model discussed by Hackman and Johnston (1990), the incident is considered more like Liverware to Liveware interfaces between Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and the pilot in charge as well as communication between pilot and pilot. According to Gerard Van Es, the member of European national aerospace Laboratory (2004), there are numerous interface problems between controllers and pilots which were, in their majority, related to oral communication issues. Such as not using standard ICAO terminology both in pilot and air traffic controller, incorrect response or read back, languages difficulty and understanding problem. To improve the inference of Liveware-liveware, 5 sets of capability have been developed and the most important set is developing effective interpersonal communication styles of behavior.

Often times, things that we do to ourselves will lead to undesirable conditions and unsafe acts as described above. Referred to as personnel factors, these preconditions have been divided into two general categories: crew resource management and personal readiness. Crew resource management (CRM). It is not hard to imagine that when none of the members of the crew are acting in a coordinated manner, confusion (adverse mental state) and poor decisions in the cockpit can ensue. Crew resource mismanagement, as it is referred to here, includes the failures of both inter- and intra-cockpit communication, as well as communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC) and other ground personnel. This category also includes those instances when crewmembers do not work together as a team, or when individuals directly responsible for the conduct of operations fail to coordinate activities before, during, and after a flight Personal readiness. Individuals must, by necessity, ensure that they are adequately prepared for flight. Consequently, the category of personal readiness was created to account for those instances when rules such as disregarding crew rest requirements, violating alcohol restrictions, or self medicating, are not adhered to. However, even behaviors that do not necessarily violate existing rules or regulations (e.g., running ten miles before piloting an aircraft or not observing good dietary practices) may reduce the operating capabilities of the individual and are, therefore, captured here as well.

Contributors to this page

putting signature

Braden Aviman
Braden AvimanBraden Aviman

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License