Thursday, May 30, 2013


Aircraft Operations and Communications

An aircraft comes in to regular flight operations only once it has been accorded regulatory approval, the whole purpose of which is aimed at providing an error free product. However, latent errors can still be present. The recent Boeing 787 battery snafu that led to the world wide fleet being grounded is a case in point. Even when the approval process ensures an error free aircraft, there are still chances of errors creeping in during regular flight operations because each individual aircraft is tended to by a large number of diverse groups. These errors can be prevented and safety & efficiency can be ensured only if all these diverse groups work as a team, which can only happen when there is adequate co-ordination between, and within, the various groups, viz. the flight crew, cabin crew, dispatch, Air Traffic Control, maintenance personnel, and others directly or indirectly connected with the safe operation of the flight. Communications is that vital link that helps in ensuring good co-ordination between all of these different agencies. Thus understanding communications is important for anyone connected with aviation, and more importantly for the flight deck crew, they being aviation’s last line of defence to prevent any mishap from happening.

Communication is a two way process, in which a message is sent out from the sender to the receiver; the receiver gives feedback; and this process continues in a loop until the same meaning is shared between the sender and the receiver. The message can be sent either verbally in the form of oral or written communications or through non verbal means like body language, gestures, postures, face & eye expressions, touch, etc. Communication is a concept that has been variously defined in text books. These definitions essentially characterise communications in terms of two basic issues, which are: -  

·         First, communication entails the transfer of information (facts, opinions, ideas, feelings, instructions, commands, etc.)  from the sender to the receiver
·         And second, communication entails the transfer of meaning from the sender to the receiver

Effective Communications

Communications are useful only when they are effective, in that the transfer of information from the sender to the receiver should lead to the same meaning being shared by each of them, at the completion of the transaction(s). This can only happen when the sender and receiver are both active participants in the process and thus entails a responsibility not only on the sender to obtain or elicit feedback in order to determine whether or not the communication was effective but also on the receiver, who is responsible to provide honest feedback. Or in other words, effective communication is a two way process, and is only effective when the desired understanding or action takes place. In the fatal Air India Express accident at Mangalore, the First Officer had thrice communicated to the Commander to go around, but no go around action was initiated by the Commander during the approach and touchdown phase. Would this communication be considered effective? In this paper we would only focus on effective communication between the flight deck crew.

Communications and Crew Resource Management

Effective communication between flight deck crew members is an essential tool for achieving technical, procedural, and also crew resource management objectives. The communication process amongst the flight deck crew fulfils many important functions. Research shows that these functions include:

·         The most obvious being the transfer of information in the form of checklists, logs, R/T, etc.
·         Interpersonal/ team relationships that are crucial in any highly effective team, primarily because humans are emotional, in addition to being rational beings
·         Working towards shaping predictable behaviour and expectations from the other crew members, through the medium of briefings and critiques
·         It helps the crew to develop a shared mental model about the location, spatial orientation, environment, aircraft systems, time and fuel; thereby enhancing situational awareness
·         It allows individual crew members to become aware of problems and to contribute effectively to the problem solving and decision-making process on the flight deck
·         It helps the efficient and effective management of the flight with optimum use of available resources, including the crew, through planning, implementing/ revising & monitoring the tasks; the environment; and the crew.

These functions are all crucial for safe and efficient flight operations and underpin the important role of communications on the flight deck. Research has shown that each message can have different content, depending on the circumstances. These circumstances could be whether we communicate face to face, or under high workload conditions, or on R/T, or through written messages or through gestures.

Face to Face Communications

In this kind of a situation, the message content is dependent just 7% on the spoken words. The major part of the message content is conveyed by the tone employed while speaking (38%); and on the non verbal aspects of communications (55%) like body language, eye & facial expressions, postures etc. The flight deck crew would encounter this situation when they come face to face on arrival at the dispatch and also during low workload periods, as in a long cruise on autopilot. It is important to remember that in such a situation, words of the sender convey very little meaning to the receiver, if they are not backed by the right tone and the non verbal cues. The message communicated during this interaction would be stored and all future interactions on the flight deck would take place keeping the sense of the stored communications in mind.

Pre-Flight Brief:  Face to face communications normally include a pre flight brief. A good pre-flight brief is very important because it effectively touches nearly every function of communications that are enumerated above. Open questions, like ‘how is this weather likely to impact our flight? Why do you think so?’ by the Commander can draw in the other crew members into giving valuable inputs that should be incorporated in the plan, if feasible. This gives the crew a sense of ownership and would also send a very positive message, which would lead to a very effective team that is motivated to optimum individual, as well as team performance. The Commander has a major role to play in setting the tone, but the crew members also need to live up to the transactional analysis dictum of ‘I am OK, you are OK’. This can only happen if the crew members believe/ are made to believe that they have an important role to play in the safe and efficient conduct of the flight. This can happen if all crew members are encouraged to participate in the communication process, and more importantly are listened to, and treated like trained professionals having a vital role to play during the flight. Operating from the adult ego state would be desirable but depending on the experience of the crew it may need to switch between the adult and the nurturing parent/ natural child ego states too, at times. Crossed and other damaging ego states should be avoided under all circumstances.

High workload situations

The contents of the message change completely in a high work load situation, like during a take-off, landing or during non normal situations. Here words convey 55% of the meaning; the tone of the words spoken another 38%, and body language just the balance 7%. This tells us that it is most important to use standard phraseology with the correct intonation and sense of urgency during these situations. Standard phraseology has the advantage of brevity with accuracy, as both the sender and receiver are on the same page instantly. This however, does not rule out the need to give feedback, read back and hear back, as appropriate. High workload situations are most prone to the use of leading questions, wherein the need for quick answers overrides all else, but these are also the situations when these are most dangerous. Leading questions under such situations are thus best avoided. The analysis of a number of aircraft accidents indicate an increasing number of leading questions leading up to the accident. Leading questions generally are an indicator of a loss of situational awareness. 

Communications on R/T, Intercom or Telephone

In such a situation the content of the message is conveyed 55% through the spoken words and the balance 45% through the intonation, speed and clarity of the spoken words. Standard phraseology is vital in this situation along with feedback, read back and hear back. In case of any disruptions in any of the messages, it is important to retransmit/ seek a clarification instead of assuming, as was the case in the tragic Tenerife accident. Choice of words in verbal communications has significant safety implications. In order to minimise potential ambiguities and other variances in aviation, there are certain standard rules regarding which words, phrases or other elements need to be used for communicating. As an example, ICAO phraseology requires that the word ‘departure’ is used instead of ‘take-off’ in all cases, except for the actual take-off itself. It also requires all clearances, heading, altitudes, runways etc. to be read-back by the crew, as also hear back by the ATC. This was introduced to enhance safety following many cases where messages were misinterpreted/ read back incorrectly.

Written communications

90% of the meaning is conveyed through words or symbols in written communications, with only the balance 10% through the tone of the message. This implies that the choice and use of words and symbols are critical in written communications, like in SOPs, checklists, let down charts, etc. This is even more so in the modern day cockpits with EFIS; the choice of symbols, colours, updating of the databases, etc. become even more critical as there is no dynamic feedback available in the cockpit that can prevent misconceptions/ misrepresentations from leading to an untoward incident. Updation date of the database should be checked before every flight by the crew to ensure that the database is current. The initiator of the written communications should be able to unambiguously create the message in such a way that clearly conveys the intended meaning. It is the responsibility of the crew also to clarify every written communication and get it rectified in case the words and symbols, etc. are perceived differently from what they are intended to convey. Latent errors in written communications are possible and should be eliminated for safe operations.


This form of communication is routinely used in aviation while marshalling an aircraft, and demands that each signal should convey a common understanding to the sender as well as the receiver. Since aviation is an international profession, all the hand signals have been standardised and should be used to prevent chances of misunderstanding. Non standard signals should be avoided.

Accent free English Language for Communications

As discussed above, words are important in almost all forms of communications barring gestures, but even more so on R/T, intercom or telephone and also during high workload situations. The message conveyed is affected by the language employed, the individual accents, pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical styles. Investigations in to a number of accidents brought home the requirement for a common language for the flight crew in which they should be reasonably proficient to ensure effective communications. ICAO thus recommended through SARPs that language testing should be undertaken to ensure proficiency.  Indian DGCA has implemented this recommendation vide a CAR in Section 7 titled, “English for Aviation Language - Training, Assessment, Test and Certification”.   This CAR lays down the six skill areas in which the crew need to be proficient, and tested. These areas include pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and interactions. Six levels of competency have been identified, and crew have to attain a minimum of Level 4 to operate. The aim of this requirement is to make communications possible, and effective. Crew would still come across individual variations, and should be sensitive to this fact and thus ensure that these variations do not hinder effective communications.

Communications, Workload and Situational Awareness

It is a known fact that human cognitive resources are limited and are shared between current reasoning processes and actions. Communications also consume mental resources. This fact needs to be clearly understood and internalised to ensure that one is sensitive to the workload on the flight deck before initiating/ responding to communications or before interrupting communications already underway, for some other task. We have all experienced situations wherein an increased workload tended to shorten our sentences, as also reduce their numbers, thus increasing the chances of communication errors. The most relevant example is the execution of the ‘Before take-off checklist’. Invariably this gets interrupted by the ATC that is ready to give out the departure clearance. It is best to ask the ATC to standby and complete the checklist before taking down the clearance or take down the clearance and then re-initiate the checklist from the beginning to ensure that both of these crucial tasks are not interrupted, thus making them prone to errors.

Similarly, a person absorbed in a difficult or unfamiliar task like in an emergency situation is less likely to understand what someone is saying to them. It is always best to wait until the task is completed, or stabilised before interrupting them. It is difficult to continue with a demanding task while at the same time communicating effectively. Leading questions at such times can be disastrous, as the person may respond verbally without paying attention, due to lack of mental resources available at his/ her disposal. Please be aware that under conditions of excessive workload, one of the first signs of degraded situational awareness is a loss of the ability to listen in. Since communications consume limited mental resources, to conserve on these, communications should be restricted to task oriented only during the critical phases of flight when sterile cockpit is called for. This ensures that communications are not distracting the crew during periods of anticipated high workload and helps the crew maintain situational awareness.

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