Say again? Tips for better ATC communication

Busy airspace, non-standard phraseology, and simple human misunderstandings can make ATC communication a headache. But it doesn’t have to be.


A new pilot speaking to air traffic control for the very first time will likely find the conversation nervewracking. The fast pace, the complex dictionary of appropriate phraseology to both use and understand, the sheer volume of new information being presented: all thrown together with the actual act of flying in busy airspace makes confusion near inevitable for a novice. While most pilots overcome their nervousness at reaching out to the folks in the tower early enough in their careers, poor habits such as forgetting to read callbacks, dropping vital pieces of communication from the rhetoric, or deviations from standard phraseology may inevitably creep into a pilot's habitual calls. An overconfident pilot may refrain from calling ATC when he or she ought, or a hesitant one may do the same so as not to be a bother. Any one of these errors in judgment or behavior can cause problems ranging from annoyance to accident.

But ATC wants to see you safe from ground to air and back down again, just as you do. Seasoned pilots know they can trust the controllers to keep them safe so long as they provide the correct information in a concise and useful way, and they will also make liberal use of various ATC services to ensure their crew has as much information as possible to make decisions from.

As a refresher, here are some reminders to help you become more aware of how you communicate with ATC and what can be done to make the process both safer and easier for everyone involved:

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Stay awhile and listen

With experience comes a degree of human automation, when certain actions become so routine you don't think very hard about performing them anymore. While this is certainly useful in mundane, ground-based tasks around the house, never let ATC calls become "just another thing" you have to do. Before you push that button, take a moment to stop and think about what you are about to do and say.

Every good ATC conversation is effectively a continuous cycle of three pieces of information: Who you are, where you are, and what you want. Each communication should begin with this information (exceptions being longer or more complex calls; more on that momentarily), and further communications will always contain some element of each depending on what you are asking or are being asked to do. Take a moment before reaching out to ATC to go over the call that you intend to make and ensure all elements are present.

For every initial callup you should include, in order:

If your request is long or complex, it may be prudent to only provide the who and the where, implicitly asking ATC to call back when they have a moment so you can make your request. The controller will be grateful for your respect of their time, and you'll benefit from their undivided attention when they get back to you.

Finally, be sure to take a moment to listen before transmitting, especially after changing to a new frequency. Listen for what's going on in the area, and take a moment to ensure you are on the correct frequency and the volume is set where you want it. By giving yourself a moment before jumping in, you'll gain a far better picture and avoid stepping on the transmission of others in the area.

Brevity at the soul of it

While more information tends to be better in aviation, there is a moratorium on too much useless information whether you're flying the aircraft or trying to direct it. As you're thinking over the call you're about to make to ATC, mentally purge it of any unnecessary information. For example, you should always begin your calls with the facility name to confirm that you are on the correct frequency, but after that, there's no need to repeat who you are talking to every time unless there's some present confusion. The people in the tower hopefully are aware of who and where they are, and don't need you to tell them again.

But with that in mind, always use your entire callsign unless the controller gives you an abbreviated version first, at which time you may repeat the version they gave you. This helps prevent your callsign being confused with another, similar callsign in the same traffic at the same time.

Next up - standard phraseology. There's a lot of it! But it must be known and used, for just one non-standard term used in a time-critical situation can result in confusion and trouble for all. Take time to review the terms in the Aeronautical Information Manual and excise the non-standard from your speech. Be conscious of the words you choose, the speed at which they are spoken, and ensure only the pertinent information is relayed.

The longer you fly, the more adept you will become at anticipating the kind of information ATC will need to answer your requests. Listen carefully each time they ask for more information from you, and remember it for the next time. The end goal is an efficient and effective transfer of information in a clear manner, in a logical order, with no ambiguity.

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Sticky situations

Emergency situations aside, sometimes unusual occurrences muddle communications. You'll need to be aware of the possibilities so that if your communications are not received, the response you get makes no sense, or some other red flag appears, you can handle it appropriately.

One of the most common and frustrating problems you may run into on your own mic or those of others' is a stuck mic. A mic stuck in the transmit position makes it impossible for anyone else to get coherent messages through, and will require others to switch frequencies if not amended quickly. Try to remain aware of your transmit button's position at all times to ensure you are not the person gumming up communication lines with ambient cockpit noise. To that same end, ensure you're not stepping over anyone else's communications when you do call in. Use that moment of listening before calling to wait for others before announcing yourself.

Be sure to always acknowledge controller instructions when given, particularly if told to change frequencies. Simply complying with a direction without acknowledging it was received wastes valuable time as controllers pursue you, trying to find out if you're doing what they told you intentionally or not.

Finally, never be afraid to ask for what you need. The controller's job is to get your flight where it needs to go as safely and efficiently as possible. If providing you with more information or safer routing is within their power and workload limits, most controllers will work hard to help you out. Notify controllers of any unusual flight situations on board, ask for weather information as appropriate, and if you want to take an alternate route for any reason, the worst the controller can say is no. Remember that the primary goal in all your communications is understanding, both for you and the controller. If you both understand one another, appropriate decisions can be made to ensure your flight and the flights of those around you remain safe, efficient, and enjoyable.

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