Effective communication is a very important aspect of aviation safety. As the major means of communication between pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC) is through radio communication, verbal communication skills become crucial to the future of aviation safety.
Aviation communication is not only the communication between pilots, copilots, ATC, and other aircraft but it involves a variety of team players which includes, ground handlers, cabin crew, construction workers, airline staff, security personnel, ramp workers, airport operators, and other aviation specialists.
As a result of this, all professionals in the aviation industry have a huge responsibility to improve their level of communication and understanding to minimize the risks of catastrophic aviation accidents that could be prevented with adequate communication.
Safety and Aviation Communication
The major importance of communication in aviation is to increase the level of safety and reduce accidents that could be prevented. When aviation was still in its early stages, the general assumption was that the sky was too expansive for two planes to randomly collide, until the well-known collision of two planes over the Grand Canyon in 1956. That crash prompted the establishment of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which was the beginning of better aviation safety in all aspects of aviation, including addressing proper communication.
Poor communications have contributed to a number of deadly plane crashes since the beginning of modern air travel. In one instance the flight crew reported to ATC that they were “running out of fuel” instead of signaling an emergency situation with the words “Mayday”, which is a specifically prescribed phraseology for the declaration of an emergency. While “we’re running out of fuel” may sound like a declaration of an emergency, in the context of controller-pilot communications, this statement was interpreted as a mere concern and not an emergency situation. That flight crashed after running out of fuel.
Aviation Communication Issues
Communication issues and errors can spring up between pilots and copilots, pilots and crew, pilot and ATC, and among the ground crew. Major communication issues include:
The higher the amount of information being transmitted, the larger the chances of an error to occur.
For non-English speakers, there is always a huge probability of passing information with unclear pronunciation.
Most errors in aviation communication are as a result of a general misunderstanding. It could be caused from variations in the speech rate, intonation, stresses, sentence structure or pauses of the communication. Misunderstandings can be found in both native and non-English speakers.
Initiatives Taken to Improve Communication
Due to the fact that aviation is an international industry, pilots, copilots, and ATC would be required to learn several languages for the proper information to be passed appropriately and received easily by the recipient. In order to ensure a more efficient and safer environment, the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) has adopted English as the official language of aviation.
All civil international pilots and other aviation staff that are not fluent English speakers, must pass an English proficiency test at an operational level to retain or gain their professional license. The test is a 1-on-1 interview with an examiner, where they will engage the pilot in conversations about specific aviation-related occurrences, as through a dialogue between the pilot and ATC, or through discussions of random subjects to determine the comprehension level of the individual.
For all communications between ATC and the flight crew, the priority is to establish an ‘operational context’ that identifies the purpose of the transmission, location information, the expected timeline, and specific flight directives, such as assigned altitudes and headings.
All subsequent messages should assist the operational context by following the sequential order of the actions required, by grouping related instructions in transmissions and by limiting the number of directives in each transmission.
Communication effectiveness and efficiency represent the most important pillars to maintain and improve safety in all airline operations and proper care must be taken so that any miscommunications can be minimized or avoided which might lead to an aircraft disaster.