Good communication is important in every industry. In aircraft operations, it is vital. Communication, or more often a breakdown in communication, is often cited as a contributor to aviation incidents and accidents.

Communication is defined in the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology as: “The transmission of something from one location to another. The ‘thing’ that is transmitted may be a message, a signal, a meaning, etc.” In order to have communication both the transmitter and the receiver must share a common code, so that the meaning or information contained in the message may be interpreted without error.?.

Modes of Communication

We are communicating almost constantly, whether consciously or otherwise. We may need to communicate:

  • Information (e.g. “ATC have instructed us to…”);
  • Feedback/challenger/response (e.g. “checked” or “set”);
  • Ideas/proposals/counter ? proposals (e.g. “I disagree. What about ?XX instead?”);
  • Feelings (e.g. “I’m not happy with….”).

As the sender of a message, he will typically expect some kind of response from the person he is communicating with (the recipient), which could range from a simple acknowledgement that his message has been received (and hopefully understood), to a considered and detailed reply. The response constitutes feedback.

Verbal Communication

Verbal communication may be either social or functional/operational. Both serve a useful purpose, the former helping to built teamwork, and the latter being essential to the task of flying an aircraft. For a spoken or written message to be understood, the sender has to make sure that the receiver:

  • is using the same channel of communication;
  • recognises and understands his language, including any subtleties;
  • is able to make sense of the message’s meaning.

The channel of communication is the medium used to convey the message. For spoken communication, this might be face-to-face, or via the radio or intercom. Written messages might be notes, information keyed in, or tone messages (e.g. between flight deck and cabin crew). Oral/aural communication is the primary mode of communication in an aircraft.

Pilot-ATC communication is a very important area, and CRM principles should also apply equally to all pilot and ATC communications using standard phraseology.

Non Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication can accompany verbal communication, such as a smile during a face-to-face chat. It may constitute acknowledgement or feedback (e.g. a nod of the head). It can also be used when verbal communication is impossible, such as a thumbs-up in a noisy environment. Body language can be very subtle, but often quite powerful. For example, the message “No” accompanied by a smile will be interpreted quite differently from the same word said whilst the sender scowls.

Non-verbal communication may also take the form of written information or notes, between pilots or flight deck and cabin crew. Future ground-air communications are increasingly more likely to be non-verbal as data link technology and associated procedures gradually replaces oral/aural RTF communications between ATC and pilots.

Non-verbal communication is the predominant manner by which systems communicate their status. For instance, most displays in the aircraft cockpit present their information graphically. However, man-machine interface issues are not covered in these modules.

Communication Problems

There are two main ways in which communication can cause problems. These are lack of communication and poor communication.

An example of the former is a young first officer who is very IT-literate, who is engrossed with programming the FMS but doesn’t explain to the less-IT-literate Captain what he is doing.

An example of the latter is a flight deck crew who advise the cabin crew that there will be a precautionary emergency landing, but fail to tell them not to evacuate the cabin. Both problems can lead to subsequent human error.

Communication also goes wrong when one of the parties involved makes some kind of assumption. The sender of a message may assume that the receiver understands the terms he has used. The receiver of a message may assume that the message means one thing when in fact he has misinterpreted it, assumptions may be based on context and expectations.

Problems with assumptions can be minimised if messages are unambiguous and proper feedback is given.

There are several hazards which reduce the quality of communications:

  • Failures during the transmitting process (e.g. the sending of unclear or ambiguous messages, language problems);
  • Difficulties caused by the medium of transmission (e.g. background noises or distortion of the information);
  • Failures during receiving (e.g. the expectation of another message, wrong interpretation of the arriving message or even its disregard);
  • Failures due to interference between the rational and emotional levels of communication (e.g. arguments);
  • Physical problems in listening or speaking (e.g. impaired hearing or wearing of the oxygen mask).

It is the task of Human Factors training to prevent or minimise communication errors. This task includes the explanation of common communication problems as well as the reinforcement of a standard of language to ensure the error-free transmission of a message and its correct interpretation. Ambiguous, misleading, inappropriate or poorly constructed communication, combined with expectancy, have been listed as elements of many accidents, the most notorious one being the double 747 disaster in Tenerife.

While the KLM crew had started its take-off run, the tower instructed the Pan Am crew to “report when runway clear”. The crew replied: “OK, we’ll report when we’re clear”. On hearing this, the KLM flight engineer expressed his concern about the Pan Am not being clear of the runway, repeating this concern a few seconds later, but he was overruled by the captain. The flight engineer did not explicitly challenge him on this decision.

TENERIFE TOWER Stand by for take-off, I will call you.

Pan Am 1736 (F/O) And we’re still taxiing down the runway, the clipper one seven three six.

Combined RADIO and TENERIFE TOWER communications caused a shrill noise in KLM cockpit ? messages not heard by KLM crew.

TENERIFE TOWER Roger alpha one seven three six report when runway clear.

Pan Am 1736 (F/O) OK, we’ll report when we’re clear.


KLM FLT ENGR Is he not clear then

KLM CAPTAIN What do you say

KLM ?? Yup.

KLM FLT ENGR Is he not clear that Pan American

KLM CAPTAIN Oh yes. (emphatically)

Pan Am captain sees landing lights of KLM Boeing at approx. 700 m

KLM started rotation.

It is the responsibility of the entire crew to communicate effectively.