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Non-Standard Phraseology

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Article Information
Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

Description

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 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.

Effects

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

European Union

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.

United Kingdom

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:

  • A320, en route, north of Marseilles France, 2013 (On 12 September 2013, pressurisation control failed in an A320 after a bleed air fault occurred following dispatch with one of the two pneumatic systems deactivated under MEL provisions. The Investigation found that the cause of the in-flight failure was addressed by an optional SB not yet incorporated. Also, relevant crew response SOPs lacking clarity and a delay in provision of a revised MEL procedure meant that use of the single system had not been optimal and after a necessary progressive descent to FL100 was delayed by inadequate ATC response, and ATC failure to respond to a PAN call required it to be upgraded to MAYDAY.)
  • SH33 / MD83, Paris CDG France, 2000 (On the 25th of May, 2000 a UK-operated Shorts SD330 waiting for take-off at Paris CDG in normal visibility at night on a taxiway angled in the take-off direction due to its primary function as an exit for opposite direction landings was given a conditional line up clearance by a controller who had erroneously assumed without checking that it was at the runway threshold. After an aircraft which had just landed had passed, the SD330 began to line up unaware that an MD83 had just been cleared in French to take off from the full length and a collision occurred.)
  • A320, en-route, Denver CO USA, 2009 (On 21 October 2009, an Airbus 320-200 being operated by Northwest Airlines on a scheduled passenger flight from San Diego to Minneapolis-St Paul, with the Captain as PF, overflew its destination at cruise level in VMC at night by more than 100 nm, after the two pilots had become distracted in conversation and lost situational awareness. They failed to maintain radio communications with a series of successive ATC units for well over an hour. After a routine inquiry from the cabin crew as to the expected arrival time, the flight crew realised what had happened and re-established ATC contact after which the flight was completed without further incident.)
  • B738, Perth Western Australia, 2010 (On 24 February 2010, a Garuda Boeing 737-800 misunderstood the runway exit instruction issued during their landing roll at Perth and turned onto an intersecting active runway. An expeditious exit from this runway followed and no actual conflict resulted. The phraseology used by air traffic control was open to incorrect interpretation by the flight crew and led to their premature turn off the landing runway despite a prior briefing on exit options.)
  • 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.)

Further Reading

AGC Safety Letters:

EUROCONTROL Action Plan for Air-Ground Communications Safety: