How to improve Communication between ATCOs and Pilots

Communication Problems

Communication errors or breakdowns between pilots and air traffic controllers have reported to be among the contributory factors of aircraft accidents or serious incidents. Such communication breakdowns can be attributed but not limited to the following;

  • communication equipment problems caused by malfunction or complete failure of aircraft or ground equipment - becoming less of an issue with improved system redundancy;
  • Radio interference making the message difficult or impossible to read
  • Blocked transmission
  • Call-sign confusion – the message was wrongly addressed or was taken by another aircraft
  • Flight crew unintended miss-management of radio frequency or box selection - which remains one of the main causes of prolonged loss of communication

However, in some cases communication breakdown can be caused by incorrect transmission resulting in misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the messages received by the recipient. Such mistakes are the results of the following;

  • Failure to use standard phraseology;
  • Poor language skills;
  • Failure of the read-back/hear-back process

Contributing Factors to above problems

The problems indicated above are caused by the following factors;

  • Pilot workload
  • Air Traffic Control Officer workload
  • Inadequate language proficiency
  • Frequency congestion
  • Non-standard phraseology
  • Radio interference
  • Distractions and interruptions
  • Fatigue
  • Weather
  • Emergency communications

Solutions to improving communication

From the issues discussed above, it is obvious that communication breakdowns associated with human factors as well as machinery failure. Understandably, it is impossible to change humans to fix the problems, however the system can be amended to remedy the problems discussed to enhance communication between ATCO and pilots.
The following are a few suggested solutions that can be applied into the system to improve communication between pilots and ATCO;

  • Enhanced training for pilot and ATCO so that pilots and ATCOs gain considerable amount of knowledge needed in understanding the required and recommended SOPs for the following :
            1. Radio operations;
            2. Prevention of blocked transmission
            3. Emergency communications.
  • Recognize and understand respective pilot and ATCO working environments and constraints.
  • Listen carefully to other communications on the frequency to build situational awareness,
  • Avoid talking over transmissions by other users, and be alert to potential call sign confusion.
  • Promotion of, and training in, Crew Resource Management in order to ensure that SOPs are applied in best possible way to ensure:
            1. The flight clearance is understood. This includes checking to ensure that both pilots agree and understand the flight clearance
            2. The aircraft follows the flight clearance and does not unintentionally deviate from it. This includes checking the settings made to technical equipment and monitoring the performance of that equipment and the aircraft is in order to detect any error or malfunction.
  • Action within ATM to improve Team Resource Management, thereby ensuring:
            1. That the flight crew understand the flight clearance;
            2. Deviation from an essential element of the clearance is detected and corrected at an early point.
  • Improved technical equipment.
  • Having enough manpower in the field for sharing workloads to avoid mishaps
  • Reduce working hours to allow staff having enough rest
  • Implementing a mechanism for language proficiency assessment for both Pilots and ATCO, making sure that everyone attain ICAO recommended level, which is level 4 or above
  • Enforce a rule that both pilots and ATCO should have considerable knowledge of the ICAO phonetic alphabet and numeric pronunciation
  • Making sure that Radio Communication Procedures is accessible for ATCO and pilots within the workplace environment for compliance to required procedures
  • Regular in-house refresher course is conducted on Radio Communication Procedures for updating the required skills and ability

Next Generation1 Air Transportation System

This is the name of the NEW AIRSPACE SYSTEM that due to be implemented across the United States in stages between 2012 and 2015. Among the benefits discussed regarding this NextGen is communication enhancement between pilots and ATCO will be achieved.
This new data link communication will allow ATCO and Pilots to receive precise information regarding traffic information crossing along flight paths at a timely manner transmitted via data communication instead of voice communication. This new equipment will send out satellite signals providing more accurate information to both Air Traffic Controllers and Pilots that will enable safer separation both at airspace and on the ground. Additionally, this new technology will increase scope, volume and widespread distribution of information which will improve decision making, enhance safety and separation. Problems experienced with the use of voice communication will be obliterated with this new technology.
Until the widespread implementation of this data link communication, air traffic control will continue to depend heavily upon voice communication, hence factors discussed above should be taken into consideration accordingly.

1. eHow (2009). How to communicate with Air Traffic Control. Retrieved on the 7th September 2010.
2. Singh, A. (2009) Communication Navigation Survillance/Air Traffic Management beyond 2012. Retrieved on the 7th September 2010
3. Skybrary (2010) Communication Equipment Technical Problems. Retrieved on the 7th September 2010

Want to know more?

This website gives you full detail on the NextGent, its Elements, Benefits for communication and air transport system as a whole
ICAO Annex 10 describing the proper way of transmitting numerical
The website provides a list of alphabet and their pronunciations in radiotelephony communication
This website will teach you proper way of transmitting radio frequency plus other useful techniques of proper way of transmission over radio for clarity and better understanding.
A self-explanatory training programme provided by ASCENA on how to meet ICAO language proficiency requirements for ATC Officers.
A detailed note regarding the mandated International language of Aviation, describes what is expected of both Air Traffic Controllers and Pilots during Operation, this contributes towards improvment of communication between both parties.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors


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