Communication in Aviation (barriers in flight operations)

Physical Barriers

Physical barriers often cause great difficulties and lead to confused messages.

In a flight deck environment, noise is the biggest barrier to efficient communication, many aircrafts create noise that is both loud and disagreeable. Watch this video below and try to imagine that you're communicating in such environment, not very pleasant.

Video embedded from YouTube on 14 September 2009

Technical difficulties
This usually occurs when a part of the message is either inadvertently or consciously clipped off or omitted when communicate through telephones, computers and other electronic devices. For example, a bad phone line or radio signal may make it harder to hear or understand the conversation. This type of barrier usually happens on pilots/ATC communication through radio.(Spinner, 19981)

Illness and fatigue
Illness and fatigue can also prevent a person from concentrating effetively, such as heavey cold may prevent the ear from functioning fully.

Semantic Barriers

This type of barrier is usually related to language. A very fundmental prolem in worldwide operational communication involves the use of English, which is the international language of aviation, this was because English speaking nations had dominated the design, manufacture, and operation of civil aircraft. Language barrier is common to people whose native language isn't English, however it also happens to English speaking people from different regions, such as English and Americans. There are four main factors which can impact our language and become the barriers to efficiency:
Accent: an unfamiliar accent may be a barrier because the listener is unsure of the meaning.
Idiom: idioms or expressions can be a barrier to someone new to speaking English.
Technical jargon: it's a problem when the receiver feels in an unequal position.
Tone: Both in spoken and written English, tone conveys attitudes and feelings outside mere meaning.
(Chase, O'Rourke, Smith,Sutton, Timperley & Wallance 199820032)

Have you ever sent a txt or told someone something and they have taken it completely the wrong way. Has this resulted in the death of several hundred people? Probably not, at worse perhaps a fight, an apology and a lot of explaining. However in Aviation communications ambiguities have the potential to results in a catastrophic loss of life.
Consequences of ambiguity:
Tenerife is a prime example of ambiguity’s affect on aviation safety. When the KLM pilot told ATC that they were taking off ATC replied OK. Having taken this to mean you can take off KLM took off colliding with a Pan Am aircraft that was taxiing on the runway as a result 583 people were killed. It is true that if you look closer into the accident the air traffic controller followed OK with “remain in hold position I will call you”, this was lost in radio static (Aircrash confidential - collisions (discovery channel), 2011). To view this programme click on the following link:, or to find out more about the series visit the aviation topic “Aircrash Confidential – A Review”.
There are many other aviation incidences and accidents where ambiguity has been a major factor and as a result has demanded the attention of legislators and trainers.
Regulation on language used by ATC:
As a result of Tenerife one of the many changes that was made to air traffic control regulations was, the use of phrases such as “okay” and “roger” were banned (Airbus, n.d; Aircrash confidential - collisions (discovery channel), 2011).
Over time the aviation industry has established standard phraseology for air traffic control communications, and pilots and controllers can be trained to uses these phrases. However what happens in non standard situations? Again there are guidelines as to how to respond but in high stress situations these can go out the window (Green, Muir, James, Gradwell, & Green, 1996).
Overcoming ambiguity - Training:
It is no good simply to say that ambiguous words and phrases cannot be used in aviation operations. Especially as many of these words and phrases are automatic almost, reflex responses to questions or statements. As a result aircrew training is especially important, in particular crew resource management training. Crew Resource Management is important as it incorporates communication skills, teamwork and the removal of hierarchy, and it is these skills and developments within the cockpit and between the cockpit, cabin crew, management and air traffic control, that help reduce ambiguity and improve the flow of information. For more information about Crew Resource Management please see the page entitled ‘Crew Resource Management’.

Psychological Barriers

Most psychological barriers come from our perception because our perception affects our attitudes and values. In philosophy, psychology, and the cognitive sciences, perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information, and it is unique to individual.

Individual Differences
People may have similar minds or behaviours but there're always differences, it is impossible to have two identical persons, everything that makes a person unique affects communication and helps to create barriers, even among as highly selected group such as pilots, they're different in performance, attitudes, and personalities. (Orlady, 19993)

Readbacks and Hearbacks
As discussed earlier, the content of a message can be lost through the quality of the transmission or through noise impediments, therefore readbacks are extremely important in pilot/controller communications. The purpose is to get clarity of the message received, to make the pilot/controller communication process efficient, the controller is required to evaluate pilot readbacks for discrepancies and make corrections if they are needed, this is called the hearback. In this readback and hearback circle, expectation is the biggest barrier, as a part of the human limitations,both the pilot and the controller hears only what they expected to hear which, was the clearance or instruction they have just given. Again, this is because our perceptions influences our minds. (Orlady, 19993)
Picture embedded from Communication on 14 September 2009

Perceptual Ability
Perceptual ability varies from person to person, some are capable of understanding ideas quicker than others, but it doesn't mean some are more intelligent than others, it is only because we're all different. Look at this picture below, an individual can see something entirely different.
Picture embedded from American Heritage Dictionary on 14 September 2009

Other psychological barriers

You may find many other psychological barriers in this video below, such as "inattention" "emotions" and "Insufficient warning of change", it well demonstrated how human factors play the lead role in aviation safety.

Video embedded from YouTube on 14 September 2009

1. Airbus. (n.d). Flight Operations Briefing Notes: Human Performance - Effective Pilot/ Controller Communications. Retrieved October 6, 2011, from Airbus:
2. Aircrash confidential - collisions (discovery channel). (2011). Retrieved October 6, 2011, from Youtube:
3. Green, R., Muir, H., James, M., Gradwell, D., & Green, R. (1996). Human Factors for Pilots (2nd Edition ed.). Surrey, UK: Ashgate.
4. SPINNER, D. (1998). Communication Skills. (4th ed.) Auckland: Addison Wesley Longman New Zealand Limited.
5. CHASE, P., O'ROURKE, S., SMITH, L.,SUTTON,C.,TIMPERLEY, T.& WALLANCE, C. (2003). Effective Business Communication in New Zealand. (3rd ed.) Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand Limited.
6. ORLADY, H.& ORLADY, L. (1999). Human Factors in Multi-Crew Flight Operations. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Want to know more?

Seven barriers to great communication
This site has categorised the barriers into seven types, and provided detailed explanation on each type.

Barriers to effective communication
Focused on the communication barriers at workplace.

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