Communicating for Safety

Pilots, controllers, and government and industry representatives come together to discuss ways to improve communications and a host of other safety issues.

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2003, p. 33
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

One hundred years after the birth of successful powered human flight, aviation has grown in ways its creators probably never dreamed. Their focus was on their monumental, breathtaking goal: To get into the air, stay there for a little while, and live to tell about it.

In December 1903, the concept of the airport did not exist. Neither did “air traffic control.” Controller/pilot datalink communications, satellite communications, and even communicating via radio did not exist; Marconi had yet to invent wireless telegraphy.

How far we have come.

The fledgling airlines created rudimentary air traffic control during the 1930s. Since then, one of the overarching goals of aviation has been to keep pilots from occupying the same point in space at the same moment.

Today, despite development of specialized unmanned aerial vehicles, extraordinary developments in electronics, computer science, and systems for communication, navigation, and surveillance, the human element is still very much part of the equation. Pilots still fly airplanes; air traffic controllers still separate air traffic.

And despite how far we have come, we still have so far to go, so much to do.

That’s why pilots, controllers, and other interested parties have developed a rich tradition of meeting every year in a special conference, “Communicating for Safety.” This year’s Conference, held April 29–30 in Denver, Colo., was the 21st annual gathering that has brought pilots, controllers, and government and industry representatives together to talk about aviation communications and their role in safety. Sponsored by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), this year’s conference drew some 300 attendees—including several ALPA air safety representatives.

Kicking off the conference, NATCA Vice-President Ruth Marlin asserted, “When we’re able to discuss issues freely, solutions don’t seem as hard [to come by] as before…. Just getting together can make a difference in the [air transportation] industry.” She urged conference attendees to remember that “we still have to focus on the mission, which is the safety of the civil aviation system—whether the [FAA] budget is underfunded, airlines are in bankruptcy, or whatever else is going on.”

As seems to be the case at each Conference, the presentations are excellent—but some of the best exchanges of information and points of view come during the question-and-answer sessions at the end of each panel, and during the “open” panels. Following are highlights of this year’s Conference:

Emergency communications

During a panel on emergency communications, NATCA’s Pat McCormick cautioned, “Most controllers are not pilots—and that’s important because the controller might not understand or appreciate the significance of things such as particular systems failures.”

McCormick reviewed the NTSB’s investigation of a crash involving a corporate turboprop twin in 1992. The airplane struck a silo while the pilot was trying to fly a single-engine ILS in instrument conditions. The pilot, McCormick stressed, initially only communicated to the controller that the airplane had suffered decompression and that he wanted to land at the closest airport. Only later—too late—did he inform the controller that one engine was inoperative; the propeller had failed, damaging the engine and striking the fuselage.

Capt. John Long (US Airways), leader of ALPA’s CFIT/ALAR Project Team, related an anecdote about a Dutch B-747 bound for the Caribbean, and thus heavy: The flight crew lost an engine shortly after takeoff, and concomitant difficulties ensued. The flight crew was understandably very busy, but “ATC began playing ‘20 questions,’” Capt. Long recalled. “The captain later said that the second officer was new to the airplane and that his purser was on his first trip as purser. The purser burst into the cockpit, demanding information at a most inopportune time from the standpoint of flightcrew workload.”

A controller speaking from a floor mike responded that one reason controllers ask “20 questions” is that they get so little information from the cockpit. “‘We have an annunciator light’ is the one we get the most,” he declared, “and it doesn’t tell us anything.”

Capt. Long acknowledged, “You certainly need to know the nature of the emergency—and if the pilot doesn’t tell you, ask him. When I say ‘20 questions,’ I mean things like ‘How many souls on board? How many babies? How much fuel?’ That kind of thing can wait for later.”

A controller who works at Los Angeles Center urged pilots to go “back to basics.” She said controllers are not getting pilots to respond to them with call signs.

Capt. Larry Newman (Delta), chairman of ALPA’s Air Traffic Services Group, lamented that, in airline training, the “C” part of the ANC hierarchy of priorities—aviate, navigate, communicate—gets short shrift compared to the two higher priorities. He also made a pitch for use of standard ICAO radio phraseology.

“Why do Americans insist on using their own phraseology?” he asked. He contrasted one particular ATC clearance used in the United States—“Taxi into position and hold” with the “Taxi to hold position” that is part of ICAO official phraseology. He warned, “We’re going to have a runway incursion because of this.”

National Airspace Redesign

The FAA’s Sabra Kaulia and NATCA’s Dan Ossinger co-anchored a panel on the FAA’s National Airspace Redesign (NAR), which is intended to be “from the bottom up,” Kaulia said, “starting with SIDs [standard instrument departures] and STARs [standard terminal arrival routes] and pushing up into the enroute environment.”

The sweep of the NAR ranges not only from the ground to the flight levels, but also from reducing local and regional choke points in the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) to redesigning oceanic airspace for greater uniformity and improved safety, capacity, and efficiency. It involves the airspace around the 50 busiest U.S. airports and all 20 enroute centers.

The near-term benefits, Ossinger said, include such specifics as reducing arrival and departure delays—and miles-in-trail restrictions—in the Great Lakes corridor, and redesigning Phoenix terminal airspace and the four “corner posts” used at Las Vegas.

The FAA estimates the NAR will save more than $364 million per year.

Kaulia added, “Area navigation—RNAV—is the way we’re going.” Required navigational performance (RNP), she explained, “defines the level of ‘on centerline’ precision necessary for operation on a route. RNP 2 [the ability to confirm position within a radius of 2 nautical miles], for tracks and routes eight nautical miles apart, is coming. That’s going to be our low-hanging fruit.”

However, Kaulia noted, “we’re probably going to use radar vectors to get off the ground. We’re probably not going to be coming off the ground with RNAV.”

A NATCA representative urged Kaulia to continue to maintain a regular dialogue with all of the other aviation stakeholders as the FAA develops RNAV and RNP procedures and national standards. She said the NAR team had had “significant interaction with customers,” including airline dispatchers.

Don Brown, a controller from Atlanta Center, argued that, without a regulatory requirement to file “Q-routes” (i.e., RNAV routes), some pilots will continue to file flight plans for airport-to-airport direct routing. He read a few data strips from what he called “real-world ATC”—e.g., a Learjet pilot departing [lat/long coordinates] direct [lat/long coordinates], and a pilot who filed “direct Newark” from Tennessee.

“No one in this world, even the President of the United States, goes to Newark unstructured,” Brown declared. He said that controllers have to fight the urge to administer “street justice” after a pilot does that a few times.

FAA Operational Evolution Plan

FAA Associate Administrator Charlie Keegan gave an overview of the latest version of his agency’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), a several-year blueprint for modernizing the NAS.

“We’re in front of the curve [regarding NAS capacity],” Keegan asserted, “and we’re going to stay way ahead of the curve.” However, he warned, “there’s no ‘killer app[lication]’ out there. Every gain we make with new technology is in the margins—2 percent here, 3 percent there; it’s like a bank savings account. It’s all about airplanes flying closely together, using the same 10,000-foot runway we’ve been using for decades.”

Keegan said the FAA was “looking pretty seriously” at what he called “a performance-based NAS—in other words, if you can meet the RNP equipage, training, and performance requirements, you can fly into Juneau [Alaska] using the RNP approach from the east.

“The cost of a well-dressed airplane—i.e., an airliner fully certified for FAR Part 121—in this plan is half a million dollars, just for the boxes,” he added. “That’s a lot of money, and nobody has money right now.”

Asked what constitutes a “well dressed” airplane, Keegan counted off a number of high-tech systems: controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC), ADS-B with a cockpit display, cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI) connected to the FMS, RNAV, the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) or Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS) enhancement to GPS navigation, multimode radios with digital communications, and two types of satellite navigation systems hooked up with dual inertial reference units (IRUs), plus meeting the requirements for operating with reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM).

On another subject, Keegan was candid about the difficulty of improving communications, navigation, and surveillance in the Gulf of Mexico. “We’ve got do something in the Gulf,” he acknowledged. “But it has to be something other than a buoy—you can’t make a buoy work in the Gulf. I have three of ’em to get rid of. We’ve just been pouring $3 million a year down a hole.”

Panel moderator Wes Stoops, a representative of NATCA’s Southern Region National Safety Committee, asked Keegan to what extent the FAA interacts with NATCA, ALPA, and other aviation unions to get expert input on setting priorities. Keegan replied that RTCA (a nonprofit government/industry advisory group, formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, which sets standards for avionics) is “the single best organization” for providing input and exchanging information. (ALPA has been very active at all levels of RTCA for decades.)

Asked about the FAA’s Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system, Keegan admitted, “I’ve seen very few things as screwed up as NOTAMs.” Another FAA representative, speaking from a floor mike, summarized a near-term FAA project to fix—or at least improve—the NOTAM system.

Open panel—FAA reps

During an open panel with four FAA headquarters representatives, NATCA’s Stoops asked Jim Washington, the FAA’s director of Air Traffic System Requirements Service, about the status of primary radar (a long-range radar controller had earlier decried the FAA’s lack of support for keeping primary radar). Washington said some U.S. primary radars are 55 years old—but primary radar is still required to support the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. North American Air Defense Command.

A controller from Denver Tower said that a General Accounting Office report published during the last 2 years noted the impending U.S. shortage of air traffic controllers and raised the option of increasing the mandatory retirement age for controllers from the current 56. Is the FAA doing anything on this, he asked?

None of the FAA reps knew of any action on that issue.

Capt. Stan Humphreys (Southwest), representing the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, praised the work of Capt. Brian Townsend (America West), a member of ALPA’s Air Traffic Services Group, regarding implementing RNAV arrivals at Las Vegas. Capt. Humphreys said that his airline has spent approximately $2 million on RNAV and would like to see a return on its investment.

Capt. Townsend discussed the need to redesign Class B airspace to allow vertical profiles necessary for RNAV arrivals. At Las Vegas, he noted, “three years have gone by since we first started talking about this.”

The FAA’s Kaulia replied that designing—or redesigning—Class B airspace is “regulatory, so what I’ve seen is that, in some of these cases, [FAA officials are] batching changes to be implemented. You don’t want to change something you’ll want to change again six months later.”


A panel on automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) included the caution from NATCA’s Mike Ryan, “ADS-B is not, and never will be, a replacement for radar, but rather is an enhancement to radar. Significant operational issues with that are being worked.”

The FAA’s John Marksteiner added, “[ADS-B is] a gap-filler for radar at a much lower cost.”

Interim ADS-B coverage of the eastern United States is in the works; the FAA expects it to be operational within the next couple of years.

Capt. Jim Walton, of UPS Advanced Flight Systems, discussed the work his company has been doing to install and use ADS-B in UPS freighters. “Why ADS-B?” he asked rhetorically. “We determined that our main risk [of midair collisions] was when we hubbed in the middle of the night. We figured that, during the day, the [flight crews of] passenger airlines could see us.” He acknowledged, “That didn’t give our pilots a warm fuzzy.”

The air cargo carriers, Capt. Walton said, had no FAA requirement to install TCAS; they were looking for a better solution for collision avoidance, and ADS-B offered that and more. The potential operating and safety benefits of ADS-B, he said, are “enormous.” He declared that using ADS-B for collision avoidance and position reporting brings “fundamental change to aviation—and a welcome one, we think.”

Capt. Walton explained that the diamonds, squares, and circles used on TCAS displays are not replicated on ADS-B displays; the latter use chevrons to show other aircraft equipped with ADS-B, and bullets to show those that aren’t. On an ADS-B CDTI, he added, two aircraft equipped with ADS-B and on a collision course would appear to have “crossed swords.”

A controller from Los Angeles asked what kind of symbol will appear on controllers’ screens to show that an aircraft has ADS-B. NATCA’s Ryan said that remains to be determined.

Capt. John Zimmerman (United), speaking from the floor, said that he participates in a group that deals with electromagnetic interference (EMI) issues. He said that the group has looked at how EMI could affect ADS-B.

Runway safety

AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg warned, “FAR 91.129(i) is a trap—it says a clearance to taxi to a runway is a clearance to taxi across all other runways.”

Some airports, Landsberg noted, are still poorly marked; he cited recent personal experience with San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico and Boston Logan International.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s website, he advised, includes descriptions of actual runway incursions, with airport diagrams.

Landsberg and ALPA’s Capt. Mack Moore (United, Ret.) flew together in a light airplane in September 2002 at Long Beach, Calif., to evaluate Capt. Moore’s “flashing PAPI” concept to show pilots on final approach that their intended runway of landing is occupied.

FAA Office of Runway Safety Deputy Director John Pallante said that developing international standards for airport signs and markings during the early 1990s was a big advancement in airport safety. “Where the standard fell down,” he recalled, “was in training.

“Every single runway incursion we’ve looked at,” he noted, “involved human error—by a pilot, controller, or ground vehicle operator—and never an equipment failure, such as bad brakes.”

NATCA’s Dennis McGee talked about the recommendations of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) Runway Incursion Joint Safety Analysis Team (JSAT) and Joint Safety Implementation Team (JSIT). He said future plans to provide pilots with direct information to prevent runway incursions include the “flashing PAPI” to alert pilots on final approach that their intended landing runway is occupied, addressable message boards, runway status lights, and ground marker beacons.

“The majority of runway incursions involve an intersection,” McGee pointed out. “So use the full length of the runway, not the intersection, if possible.”

A controller from San Francisco emphasized the need for pilots to read back hold-short instructions completely—i.e., “hold short of Runway 28 Left,” not “hold short of the left.”

NATCA’s Stoop asked Capt. Newman to what extent, if any, airlines teach pilots proper phraseology and how to read back clearances and instructions properly. He responded, “It depends; each POI [FAA principal operations inspector] sees the world differently. He or she approves the training and will emphasize different things. In the sim, usually not; in line checks, yes.”

Regarding the issue of pilots mistaking taxiways for the runways parallel to them, and landing on the taxiway, a Southwest Airlines manager said that a few airports have painted squiggly lines on taxiways to distinguish them from runways. Another conference attendee suggested painting the word TAXIWAY on the pavement.


Don Porter, NATCA’s terminal RNAV representative on the FAA Air Traffic RNAV implementation team, said that RNAV implementation issues “involve training on both sides of the microphone.”

He added that one issue is integrity of the navigation database: Airlines use different databases, provided by different vendors. The differences between these databases can be subtle, but significant enough to affect the ability to achieve “repeatable aircraft flightpaths.”

In addition, Porter said, limited computer memory in older-generation airplanes “has been a particular problem with older [Boeing] 757s.”


Open panel—pilot and controller reps

Airline Dispatchers Federation Executive Vice-President Jim Jansen joined the final session, an open panel of pilot and controller representatives. He said that the seven largest U.S. carriers operate about 3,500 airplanes, employ about 50,000 pilots who fly about 20,000 flights per day, but have only about 1,000 dispatchers on the payroll.

With this high workload, Jansen pointed out, dispatchers have their hands full. When the FAA develops and uses SWAP (severe weather avoidance program) routes, dispatchers can’t accept them right away. Also, he said, “fuel on board has become a critical issue.”

Capt. Newman acknowledged, “We’re joined at the hip to the dispatcher.”

He told about taxiing for takeoff at Tampa, which involves only a short taxi, bound for Boston. When the controller said, “New clearance via Cleveland,” Capt. Newman was about a minute and a half from takeoff. He pulled off the taxiway to call the dispatcher, who didn’t call back for 10 minutes, because he or she was so busy.

Changing gears, Capt. Newman started a discussion about precision runway monitoring (PRM) approaches. He explained that airplanes and pilots may be PRM-certified, but unable to accept a PRM clearance because the TCAS or a VHF radio is inoperative—and the airline’s FAA-approved operations specifications require them for PRM approaches.

A controller from New York characterized the PRM breakout maneuver as “absolutely psychotic.”

A controller from Tampa asked questions about land-and-hold-short operations (LAHSO). Capt. Humphrey said Southwest doesn’t participate in LAHSO by joint decision of management and SWAPA. “Some things,” he said, “we are just not comfortable doing.”

Capt. Newman explained the FAA risk analysis conducted at Chicago O’Hare International Airport regarding LAHSO. “We were accused of ramping up hysteria [about LAHSO],” he recalled. “It turned out our [aviation] system was not collecting the data [about LAHSO].”

Two O’Hare controllers argued that “crisscrossing” airplanes in the air, to get them lined up for the runways available without LAHSO, is more dangerous than LAHSO itself.

“We want LAHSO back,” they said.

“I know you do,” Capt. Newman replied. But, he said, regarding the FAA risk analysis of LAHSO, “the science is what the science is,” and the risk analysis did not support continuing unrestricted LAHSO until the issue of responsibility for required separation in the event of a rejected takeoff is resolved. “That issue can be and is being resolved,” he said.

Capt. Newman also pointed out that the FAA’s current LAHSO order says that, to participate in LAHSO, pilots must be trained—and that the order doesn’t distinguish between active and passive participation. “The military doesn’t accept LAHSO,” he said. “They’re not training for it, and they’re not going to train for it. The same is true for foreign carriers.”

One of the O’Hare controllers responded, “From our perspective, LAHSO is just another tool. I’m not blaming the pilots, but the FAA failed miserably” in resolving (or not resolving) the LAHSO controversy the way it did.

On a different subject, a controller said she misses the FAA program by which controllers were permitted to ride airline jumpseats for familiarization. Through the program, she said, she learned pilots’ perspective on many operational issues.

ALPA senior staff engineer Bob Striegel advised that he had written ALPA’s most recent congressional testimony on this subject—as part of the Association’s testimony regarding FAA reauthorization—and that ALPA’s position is that the controller familiarization program is “absolutely essential.”

A Phoenix controller asked if pilots would have any problem with controllers dropping merging-targets-below-10,000-feet traffic advisories.

Capt. Newman replied, “TCAS isn’t a CDTI. It doesn’t lie to me regarding advisories. But it lies to me regarding what it displays—because it doesn’t show me all the targets it’s detected. I want the best IFR service you can give me.”

Capt. Newman’s final sentence in his answer was set, as all statements are, in a context. But it neatly summed up the core value of air traffic control, these 100 years since the Wright Flyer was the only aircraft aloft, anywhere, and for so short a time, in the company of only birds.