Debrief: Effective Pilot/Controller Communications

Effective Pilot/Controller Communications

by Brad Fowles, Aircraft Services, Transport Canada

Pilot/controller communication errors were a contributing factor in a number of recent occurrences we investigated. These errors have resulted in altitude deviations, TCAS resolutions, ground conflicts, runway incursions and clearance deviations. In one recent case, a crew dropped the company name from their identifier and read back the number only. This might seem like a small mistake, but in this case, the abbreviated call-sign contributed to a ground conflict.

Communication issues between pilots and controllers have been a contributing factor in many incidents globally. Here is a succinct definition of pilot/controller communications from the British CAA’s Radiotelephony Manual (CAP 413):

Radiotelephony provides the means by which pilots and ground personnel communicate with each other. Used properly, the information and instructions transmitted are of vital importance in assisting in the safe and expeditious operation of aircraft. However, the use of non-standard procedures and phraseology can cause misunderstanding. Incidents and accidents have occurred in which a contributing factor has been the misunderstanding caused by the use of non-standard phraseology. The importance of using correct and precise standard phraseology cannot be over-emphasized.

The following information was selected from the Human Performance Flight Operations briefing note on Effective Pilot/Controller Communications developed by Airbus and the Flight Safety Foundation.

The pilot/controller communication loop

The pilot/controller communication loop constitutes a confirmation/correction process that ensures the integrity of communications. Strict adherence to this closed loop constitutes a line of defence against communication errors. Readback/Hearback errors may result in an event such as: operational deviation; airborne conflict; less than required separation; runway incursion; near midair-collision, etc.

Graphic depicting the pilot/controller communication loop.

Effective communication is achieved when our mental process is able to accommodate and to interpret the information contained in a message. This mental process can be summarized as follows:

  • How do we perceive the message?
  • How do we reconstruct the information contained in the message?
  • How do we link this information to an objective or to an expectation?
  • What bias or error is introduced in this process?

Crew resource management (CRM) research highlights the relevance of the context and expectations in this process. Nevertheless, expectations may introduce either a positive or negative bias in the effectiveness of the communication. Workload, fatigue, non-adherence to the sterile cockpit rule, distractions, interruptions, conflicts and pressure are among the factors that may affect adversely pilot/controller communications.

Key points for effective pilot/controller communications

  • Company SOPs are adhered to.
  • Respective working environments and constraints are understood.
  • Use of standard phraseology is disciplined.
  • The pilot/controller communication loop is adhered to.
  • There is an alertness to request clarification or confirmation, when in doubt.
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