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Of the many factors involved in the process of communication, phraseology is perhaps the most important because it enables us to communicate quickly and effectively despite differences in language and reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding.
Standard phraseology reduces the risk that a message will be misunderstood and aids the read-back/hear-back process so that any error is quickly detected. Ambiguous or non-standard phraseology is a frequent causal or contributory factor in aircraft accidents and incidents.
International standards of phraseology are laid down in ICAO Annex 10 Volume II Chapter 5, ICAO Doc 4444 PANS-ATM Chapter 12 and in ICAO Doc 9432 - Manual of Radiotelephony. Many national authorities also publish radiotelephony manuals which amplify ICAO provisions, and in some cases modify them to suit local conditions.
This article deals with non-standard phraseology, which is sometimes adopted unilaterally by national or local air traffic services in an attempt to alleviate problems; however, standard phraseology minimises the potential for misunderstanding.
Where non-standard phraseology is introduced after careful consideration to address a particular problem, it can make a positive contribution to flight safety; however, this must be balanced with the possibility of confusion for pilots or ATCOs not familiar with the phraseology used.
Non-standard phraseology in Europe
Regulation 2016/1185 introduces some deviations from the standard ICAO phraseology at EU level:
- Flight levels which are whole hundreds (e.g. FL 100, FL 200, FL 300, etc.) are to be pronounced as "Flight level (number) hundred".
- Altimeter setting of 1000 hPa is to be pronounced as "One thousand".
- Transponder codes containing whole thousands are to be pronounced as "(number) thousand".
- For transfers of communication within one ATS unit, the call sign of the ATS unit may be omitted, when so authorised by the competent authority.
The UK CAA has adopted certain non-standard phraseology designed to reduce the chance of mishearing or misunderstanding RTF communications. This phraseology is not in accordance with ICAO but is based on careful study of the breakdown of pilot/controller communications. Some other European countries have also adopted similar non-standard phraseology.
The following paragraphs taken from the UK Manual of Radiotelephony summarise the main differences.
- The word ‘to’ is to be omitted from messages relating to FLIGHT LEVELS.
- All messages relating to an aircraft’s climb or descent to a HEIGHT or ALTITUDE employ the word ‘to’ followed immediately by the word HEIGHT or ALTITUDE. Furthermore, the initial message in any such RTF exchange will also include the appropriate QFE or QNH.
- When transmitting messages containing flight levels each digit shall be transmitted separately. However, in an endeavour to reduce ‘level busts’ caused by the confusion between some levels (100/110, 200/220 etc.), levels which are whole hundreds e.g. FL 100, 200, 300 shall be spoken as “Flight level (number) HUNDRED”. The word hundred must not be used for headings.
- Examples of the above are:
- “RUSHAIR G-BC climb flight level wun too zero.”
- “RUSHAIR G-BC descend to altitude tree tousand feet QNH 1014.”
- “RUSHAIR G-BC climb flight level wun hundred.”
- “RUSHAIR G-BC turn right heading wun wun zero.”
Non-standard North American phraseology
A particular example of non-standard phraseology which is in regular use in North America is the instruction “taxi into position and hold”, (which has the same meaning as the ICAO standard phrase “line up and wait”).This can be confused with the old ICAO phraseology “taxi to holding position” (which means taxi to, and hold at, a point clear of the runway).
Use of this non-ICAO standard phraseology is fail-safe in North America, but in Europe can lead to an aircraft taxiing onto the runway when not cleared to do so. To overcome this problem ICAO has amended its phraseology to "taxi to holding POINT".
Non-standard Phraseology in Abnormal/Emergency Situations
Is is often necessary for pilots and controllers to revert to non-standard phraseology in abnormal and emergency situations. The extent to which this occurrs, and leads to effective communication, will depend upon the quality of the both speech delivery and language proficiency of those involved.
Accidents and Incidents
The following events include "Phraseology" as a contributing factor:
- GLEX/F2TH, vicinity Ibiza Spain, 2012 (On 21 September 2012, two aircraft came into conflict in Class 'A' airspace whilst under radar control at night and loss of separation was resolved by TCAS RA responses by both aircraft. Investigation found that one of the aircraft had passed a procedurally-documented clearance limit without ATC clearance or intervention and that situational awareness of its crew had been diminished by communications with the conflicting aircraft being conducted in Spanish rather than English. A Safety Recommendation on resolving the "persistent problem" of such language issues was made, noting that a similar recommendation had been made 11 years earlier.)
- A320 / B739, Yogyakarta Indonesia, 2013 (On 20 November 2013, an A320 misunderstood its taxi out clearance at Yogyakarta and began to enter the same runway on which a Boeing 737, which had a valid landing clearance but was not on TWR frequency, was about to touch down from an approach in the other direction of use. On seeing the A320, which had stopped with the nose of the aircraft protruding onto the runway, the 737 applied maximum manual braking and stopped just before reaching the A320. The Investigation faulted ATC and airport procedures as well as the A320 crew for contributing to the risk created.)
- A333, en-route, near Bournemouth UK, 2012 (On 16 April 2012, a Virgin Atlantic A330-300 made an air turnback to London Gatwick after repetitive hold smoke detector warnings began to occur during the climb. Continuing uncertainty about whether the warnings, which continued after landing, were false led to the decision to order an emergency evacuation on the runway. Subsequent investigation found that the smoke warnings had all been false and had mainly come from one faulty detector. It also found that aspects of the way the evacuation had taken place had indicated where there were opportunities to try and improve passenger behaviour.)
- B763, Halifax NS Canada, 2019 (On 4 March 2019, a Boeing 767-300 crew lost directional control of their aircraft as speed reduced following their touchdown at Halifax and were unable to prevent it being rotated 180° on the icy surface before coming to a stop facing the runway landing threshold. The Investigation found that the management of the runway safety risk by the airport authority had been systemically inadequate and that the communication of what was known by ATC about the runway surface condition had been incomplete. A number of subsequent corrective actions taken by the airport authority were noted.)
- B738, Eindhoven Netherlands, 2012 (On 11 October 2012, the crew of a Ryanair Boeing 737-800 did not change frequency to TWR when instructed to do so by GND whilst already backtracking the departure runway and then made a 180° turn and took off without clearance still on GND frequency. Whilst no actual loss of ground or airborne safety resulted, the Investigation found that when the Captain had queried the receipt of a take off clearance with the First Officer, he had received and accepted a hesitant confirmation. Crew non-compliance with related AIP ground manoeuvring restrictions replicated in their airport briefing was also noted.)
- ALLCLEAR? Toolkit
- SAY AGAIN phraseology guide
- Communication Guide for General Aviation VFR Flights
- Safety Reminder Message, 20090421, Missed Approach RTF Communications
AGC Safety Letters:
EUROCONTROL Action Plan for Air-Ground Communications Safety: