How Aviation Communications Can Inspire Stronger Organizational Communications

“Palo Alto Ground, this is Beechcraft Baron November-eight-seven-tree-Juliett-Delta…”

The importance of communication between aircraft and air traffic control (ATC) cannot be overstated. With variable weather conditions and modern concerns like increasing traffic, the ability to request and relay information is as integral to aviation now as the principles that cause lift.

Individuals and teams in an organizational setting may not rely on communication for their safety in the same way aircraft do – and some aspects of air-to-ground contact are certainly unique to aviation – but flight communication nevertheless illustrates four principles that can encourage effective, efficient information flow in any field.

Select a Channel

In order to communicate at all, there must be a way to do so.

The advent of modern air-to-ground communication via two-way radio provided aircraft and air traffic controllers an essential means of requesting and relaying information. Whether during departure, in flight, or upon arrival, aircraft and ATC maintain regular contact. These channels, or frequencies, change – from ground, to tower, to other facilities, depending on the aircraft’s position – but always with notice from the controlling ATC facility. No matter the frequency, a channel is open for communication.

Be it in person, via email, or over Slack, individuals and teams likewise benefit from an established channel of communication.

Establish a Shared Lexicon

“… alpha, bravo, tree, fife, niner…”

In response to the development of modern air-to-ground radio technology and the increase of air travel following World War II, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommended establishing a lingua franca – a trade or common language – to facilitate communications between aircraft and ATC. ICAO recommended English, which in subsequent years evolved to become Aviation English, now the de facto language of international civil aviation. Aviation English, with its unique structure and lexicon, differs from the English language to limit ambiguity, and promote clear, efficient communication in radio transmissions.

Aviation English employs unique terminology to improve clarity and limit confusion between similar sounds and words, a lexicon that is especially apparent when expressing letters and numbers. ICAO, for example, utilizes the phonetic or spelling alphabet, a set of code words – alpha, bravo, charlie, etc. – to clearly communicate letters in the Roman alphabet, and the numbers three, five, and nine are pronounced tree, fife, and niner for clarity.

While industry terminology and terms of art may be confusing to those unfamiliar, they provide a precise, efficient lexicon to individuals and teams in a shared field. In appropriate settings, terms of art expedite the exchange of information, promoting greater comprehension and innovation.

Listen Thoroughly

Effective listening practices are integral to communication in any field. To avoid tying up or jamming a frequency, pilots listen before transmitting requests, because information may have already been relayed or may be available from a source other than ATC. Most airports, for example, provide information regarding weather, runways, and important notices via an automatic terminal information service (ATIS). Additionally, transmitting on a frequency without listening first may interrupt others’ communications.

Whether during a meeting or in an email thread, careful consideration of the information already provided can limit needless repetition. Thoughtful listening also encourages meaningful communication, in both formal and informal interactions, and limits expectation bias, the occurrence of anticipating information that is different from the information actually provided.

Communicate with Purpose

Like most communication, it is important in aviation to know what you want to say before you say it. The common phrase think before you speak expresses the importance of considering the content, intent, and impact of your message. Communicating something other than what you intended may change the nature of an interaction, requiring additional communication to get back on track. This is especially true in flight communications when radio signals may be less than perfect.

Because of this, radio interactions between aircraft and ATC typically follow an established structure to encourage clear and accurate communications, eliminating confusion and repetition. Initial interactions identify who is being spoken to – ground, tower, etc. – who is speaking, the position, and the message or request. Subsequent interactions with ATC emphasize acknowledging the instructions or clearances given and requesting clarification when uncertain about an instruction.

This level of detail may be unnecessary in every interaction, but when starting a new project or onboarding new team members, for example, clearly identifying the parties and goals provides useful context and guidance. Then, acknowledging and confirming new information as it is given helps to limit unnecessary confusion going forward.

“Cleared for takeoff.”

The structure and lexicon of Aviation English are certainly unique, but they provide a useful example of effective communication. Establishing a clear channel and shared language and then listening and communicating with purpose can benefit both formal and informal interactions, whether in meetings, over email, at the water cooler, or wherever individuals and teams engage.

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- Paul Smith