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Updated: Nov 29, 2023

An aircraft flying in the sky
Say Again

Have you ever needed to talk to ATC but had to wait in line because another pilot was asking the controller to, “say again?”

While there are numerous aviation phraseology examples that are common, “say again” is one that can be frustrating to hear. However, if you have been a pilot for any length of time, odds are you have either spoken these words yourself or heard them from ATC (probably more than once).

The pilot/controller glossary defines the phrase “say again” in the following manner: “Used to request a repeat of the last transmission. Usually specifies a transmission or portion thereof not understood or received; e.g., ‘Say again all after ABRAM VOR.’”

Non-native English speaking pilots and controllers must be formally tested and most are required to be re-tested every 3-5 years.

Native English speakers are typically ‘signed off’ by other native speakers during flight checks

ICAO requires ALL personnel to:

Maintain an even rate of speech not exceeding 150 words per minues
ICAO Manual of Radiotelephony

  • Speak at the mandated rate of no more than 100 words per minute

  • Stick to Standard Phraseology as much as possible

  • Speak in a way that can be understood by the international aviation community

  • Use appropriately short transmissions

But neither group (native or non-native English speakers) currently undergoes training or testing to ensure these requirements are met.

The SayAgain training addresses these issues and also focuses on the human factors involved in safe communication:

  • WHY we sometimes don't speak up when we should

  • WHY we sometimes speak too quickly

  • WHY we don't always ask for help when we need it

  • WHY some of us may feel 'superior' or 'inferior' because of level of English

The speed at which we speak is one of THE most important factors in safe, efficient aeronautical communication. If we speak too quickly then the chance of misunderstanding increases; if we speak too slowly then traffic can become congested and delays can occur.

ICAO has decided that the optimal speed is 100 words per minute.

“Maintain an even rate of speech not exceeding 100 words per minute. When it is known that elements of the message will be written down by the recipient, speak at a slightly slower rate”. (ICAO Manual of Radiotelephony)

This video contains three messages delivered by native-English speaking air traffic controllers. The rate of speech is included. The same message is then delivered at 100 words per minute so the differences are (hopefully) clear.

If pilots and controllers are regularly speaking more than 2 times faster than the required rate, then:

1) What are regulators currently doing to ensure pilots and ATCO’s speak at 100 words per minute? Or

2) Does ICAO need to increase the mandated rate of speech (for example to 150 words per minute)? Or

3) Is the current situation ok?

Read on to understand why you may hear this phrase and even some tips on how to decrease your need to use it yourself.

Why you may need to ask the controller to “say again”

There is more than one reason you could need to request a repeat of the last transmission.

Here are 6 of the most common situations that prompt a communications breakdown and spur the need for a pilot to use “say again.”

1. The controller is talking too fast.

It is no secret that some controllers speak more rapidly than others, especially when they are extremely busy and overtasked. If the controller is juggling many aircraft or is repeating a common set of instructions, they may speak too quickly for the pilot to keep up.

2. The controller is using nonstandard terminology and phraseology.

Aviation phraseology and terminology are standardized for a reason. The goal is to ensure that both controller and pilot give the same meaning to what has been said. If either party goes off script, there is a greater chance of misunderstanding and a need for clarification.

3. The pilot is flying into an unfamiliar airport.

Radio comms are a lot easier when you are flying into and out of your home airport.

You are already familiar with the layout, taxi routes, frequencies, common ATC instructions, and even usual aviation terminology abbreviations that are used at your home airport. On the other hand, when you fly somewhere new, it is easy to get tangled up with new approaches and complex taxi routes.

4. There is too much in-cabin chatter.

To understand the controller, you need a quiet cockpit, free from the distractions of other conversations. If a person is chatting your ear off, it is easy to miss a key piece of an ATC transmission.

5. The radio volume setting is too low.

We’ve all done this! Before you can understand a radio transmission, you must first hear it. One of the more embarrassing pilot communication mistakes is accidentally turning the radio volume down too low.

6. You are a new pilot or are out of practice on radio communications

When we are first starting out, we are all “consciously competent” pilots needing intense focus to manage the multitasking necessary for piloting an aircraft.

As we gain more experience, we build our skills, and juggling all the demands of flying gets easier.

The same is true if we have had a long break from flying. It is not always like riding a bike in this case, and a pilot can get rusty after time off. When we first climb back in the cockpit, we are more likely to need the controller to “say again” than we are after we have logged some hours and built our skills back up.

Why the controller may need to ask you to “say again”

“Say again” is not a phrase reserved solely for pilots to use. You may also hear it directed to you from ATC for similar reasons like:

  • Perhaps you spoke too quickly or used nonstandard aviation terminology and verbiage.

  • A poorly positioned microphone or faulty radio can also garble communications.

  • In a busy airspace, it is easier to accidentally walk on another transmission. If someone cuts into your message, the controller will ask you to “say again.”

  • Depending on the airfield or airspace, the controller could be juggling the needs of aircraft across multiple channels. If you transmit a detailed message before the controller has acknowledged you and told you to “go ahead,” they may be speaking with another aircraft and not be ready to copy your transmission.

In all the above cases, you are probably setting yourself up for a “say again” response.

How to decrease your need for “say again”

Although odds are we will all need to use “say again” at some point, there is good news. It is within your power to improve your ATC communication and decrease the need for “say again.”

Take the following actions to help lower the chances:

Remind passengers to stop talking as soon as they hear a radio transmission begin.

Unlike fellow pilots, your passengers are not trained in aviation communications.

They may not realize that their casual conversation during an ATC radio transmission can be distracting and prevent you from understanding the call. During your preflight brief, explain the importance of clear radio communications and ask everyone to stop talking when you are on the radio.

Check your radio’s volume setting prior to use.

How many times have you or someone you know missed a call from ATC or repeated your own call because you thought the controller didn’t hear you, only to realize later that the radio’s volume was set too low?

This is one of the most embarrassing but also the most easily preventable radio faux pas a pilot can experience. To fix the problem, ensure a volume setting check is part of your preflight.

You can also make it a habit to confirm the radio volume setting prior to transmission and before repeating a radio transmission that you think went unanswered.

Invest in a high-quality ANR headset with an electret microphone.

Some cockpits are louder than others, and besides being bad for your hearing, the extra ambient noise can impact your radio communication as well.

To offset the impact of noise on your comms, invest in a higher-end over-ear active noise reduction (ANR) headset.

This style of headset will provide the maximum level of noise reduction.

Pro Tip: Look for a headset with an electret-style boom mic for the clearest audio transmissions.

Learn and review standard aviation phraseology and terminology.

It is no secret that the more comfortable you are understanding and using aviation communication words and phrases, the easier it is to make and receive radio calls. The goal is to gain a level of competence that doesn’t require you to consciously decipher the meaning of a received message or spend minutes determining how to reply.

Practice radio communication techniques.

The best way to improve radio communication skills is to practice, and the easiest way to practice is with an app that you can take anywhere.

AERONAUTICAL STANDARD PHRASEOLOGY Database package provides pilots with guide in English to common phraseology used during flights explains why certain words and phrases are used.

Lastly, as you practice and build up your aviation communication proficiency, the words and aviation phrases needed for each transmission will come naturally. Until then, quickly rehearse the message in your head before making contact. As the old saying goes, it is “push to speak, not push to think.”

Why using “say again” makes you a better pilot

Remember, asking the controller to “say again” when you are unclear on their last transmission makes you a good pilot, not a bad one.

Your response of “say again” indicates you are not afraid to admit that you either didn’t hear or didn’t understand what was said. Rather than hide behind a fear of looking or sounding like you don’t know what you are doing in the cockpit, your “say again” demonstrates your confidence in flying the airplane.

You are aware of the potentially serious safety consequences of miscommunication and are going to seek clarification whenever needed. By valuing safety over pride, you demonstrate one of the hallmarks of a good pilot.

But if you want to avoid this potential issue, CaptainPilot’s RADIOTELEPHONY PHRASEOLOGY can give you the practice you need to excel in all radio comms, not just helping you avoid needing to “say again.”


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