Why Is Standardization So Important in ATC Comms?
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Why Is Standardization So Important in ATC Comms?

DALLAS – Every day, more than 200,000 aircraft take off or land at airports around the world. This number has been increasing as the years go by, so there has always been a need to create worldwide rules and methods to keep the skies safe from accidents.

One of the most delicate and crucial aspects to keep an eye on is the communication of messages between pilots and air traffic controllers.

Usually, aircraft are separated from each other to avoid collisions, so it is very important to develop a series of procedures for ATC communications that all pilots and air traffic controllers must follow in order to deliver any information as clearly and efficiently as possible.

Certain departments of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have been dedicating all of their lifetimes exclusively to developing this norm.

Here are some examples of the rules and methods that have been implemented that show how important standardization in global aviation communications is.

Standardized formation and team cooperation play a key role, especially in ATC communications, to ensure the safe operation of aircraft. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways.


Even though the official language recognized and promoted by international aviation authorities for air traffic control communications is English and all pilots must demonstrate a broad knowledge of speaking and understanding it, ethnic and cultural identities profoundly impact the pronunciation of certain words and terms regarding aviation phraseology.

Dialects and accents are key aspects to consider in critical situations where a clear understanding between pilots and air traffic controllers is very important to avoid major incidents.

Because of that, the ICAO and NATO created the Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (RSA), which linked a unique and differentiated word to every one of the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. That’s why you will never hear an aircraft communicate to the control tower that it is taxiing via the taxiway “A2”, but “ALPHA TWO” instead.

A specific rule for some numbers has also been implemented, where the pronunciation of some digits has been changed to avoid confusion with similar terms. The number nine, for example, is pronounced as “NINER” to not get mistaken for “NEIN”, which means “no” in German.  

ICAO also indicates a specific method of pronunciation for indicating altitudes and headings. These are two parameters that are typically transmitted to the traffic in the same transmission from ATC, mostly during the departure or approach phases of the flight.

To differentiate them, every heading transmitted is pronounced with three digits, where heading 90º is “ZERO-NINER-ZERO.” In comparison, the altitude shall be pronounced either directly in feet or in “flight level” with two or more digits.

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Featured image: Featured image: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Commercial aviation enthusiast from Madrid, Spain. Studying for a degree in Air Traffic Management and Operations at the Technical University of Madrid. Aviation photographer since 2018.

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