Air Ground Communications for Controllers and Pilots

Updated: Nov 24

Communicating well is not and end in itself; it is a means to achieve safety and effectiveness. So, what effect does poor communications have on pilot's and controller's workloads?

Click on the diagram to watch what happens when the quality of communications reduces.

When do risks to safety occur?

Look at the list below and consider which circumstances carry a high risk of compromising safety or increasing workload (such as the examples in the diagram above; CFIT, loss of separation, level bust, runway incursion, etc.) and which carry a lower risk.

Click here to reveal our answers.

When are the risks more likely to occur?

Perhaps there is a danger when we are not sufficiently focussed on routine tasks that we may rely on a sort of ‘automated’ behaviour to carry these tasks out. When this happens, we don’t cross-check information. So when the information received is incomplete, instead of confirming the missing parts, we fill them in based on our own knowledge, past experiences or on expectations.

Are you able to identify times when you are working that this happens? For example when a colleague tells you something at the same time as a pilot or a controller is talking to us on the frequency. How much do we actually hear and how much do we fill in? Let's explore this a bit more...

Expectation bias - good or bad ?...

Expectation bias is when we have a strong mindset towards a particular outcome. And, attention!, this can occur even when there is evidence to the contrary!

We will now illustrate the 3 types of expectation bias.

Outcome bias - when we wish something to turn out in a particular way. For example, in the next video ("Blocked Transmission"), did the second pilot pick up the incorrect clearance because he wanted to land as quickly as possible?

Hindsight bias - when we expect things to happen in the same way that they have regularly happened in the past. For example, in the next video ("Radio Discipline"), did the first officer assume she had heard the clearance to cross the runway because it was the usual clearance at that airport?

Local rationality - when we expect things to happen in a way we believe is logical. For example, in the next video, did the tower controller assume that since an aircraft was calling in it must be the first one in the sequence?

So how often does expectation bias affect the results of our work?

Expectation bias in air ground communication

Expectation bias is one of the abilities we humans use to make sense of the environment which surrounds us.

There are two areas we need to consider regarding expectation bias in the ATM environment:

  • The first is that expectation bias normally helps us to automatise certain things which become routine. As an example, think of driving a car. This is done by allowing the brain to only pay attention to the task only during intervals of time. The rest is filled up using prior experience and assumption based on our logic. You can imagine what happens when the assumptions we take are wrong, and our brain fills the gaps based on those wrong assumptions!

  • The second is that in case of ambiguity or of missing information, the brain, using expectation bias, has the ability to fill in the gaps. As an example, think of a phrase you hear on the radio where the reception is particularly bad and where you only manage to hear parts of the message - you will try to make sense of the message by filling in the gaps. The more gaps there are, the more filling in the brain has to do.

Now that we have seen when the risks of communications breakdown are likely to happen and how expectation bias can affect our decisions, what can we do to improve safety?

What to do?

So, what can we do to be safer with our communications? Having explored the subject, our attention could concentrate on 3 areas: awareness, actions and teamwork.


Be aware of when we are more prone to making mistakes due to expectation bias. For example, when we:

  • catch ourselves doing things automatically (i.e. without really thinking what we are doing)

  • get distracted

  • are tired

  • are going through periods of very high workloads

  • get into ambiguous situations (e.g. an ambiguous communication)

  • expect something to happen because it is routine

Think about it, isn't it true?


Being aware will help, but taking some actions will be even better! In the are of air ground communications, it makes sense to:

  • use standard phraseology where it exists Using standard phraseology reduces the risk of ambiguity and, therefore, the risk of expectation bias creeping in.

  • be modest When we do not understand something or find it confusing, we should ask for confirmation - remember that otherwise our brains will try to fill in the void with things we believe are logical.

  • not interrupt other unless urgent As we have seen, interruption can lead us to fill the gaps with things we expect that are logical to use - but which might not correspond to reality.

Three actions - do you think we can apply them?


Finally, a great way of reducing risks of air ground communication failures is by working as a TEAM:

  • four ears are better than two!

No further comment. Actually one:

  • headsets are better than ambient speakers because ambient noise gets mixed in when we listen through ambient speakers!

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