Notices for runway closures, other restrictions confuse pilots, UCF study shows

07/01/04

University of Central Florida researchers have suggested ways to improve how Notices to Airmen are presented

ORLANDO, July 1, 2004 -- Eighty-three people died in 2000 when an airplane crashed into concrete barriers and construction equipment on a Taiwan runway. Investigators concluded that the pilots had trouble extracting and remembering information about the runway closure included in a notice they had received before taking off.

To help prevent such crashes in the future, and to make flying more efficient for pilots and passengers, University of Central Florida researchers have suggested improvements to how notices about runway closures, beacon outages and other temporary, flight-related issues are presented to pilots.

Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMs, which pilots or airline dispatchers check before every flight, are written in capital letters with abbreviations that often are confusing. Pilots also need to figure out which notices contain important information for their flights and which ones include restrictions at airports they're not using and at altitudes at which they're not flying.

UCF researchers, led by Team Performance Laboratory Director Florian Jentsch, concluded that the notices should be written in "plain and simple" language instead of abbreviations that can confuse even experienced pilots. They also said the notices should be better organized so pilots can sort the data and easily find important information pertaining to their flights.

"This is critical information, yet the way it's transmitted is vintage 1960s or 1970s at best," said Jentsch, who holds commercial pilot and flight instructor licenses. "As a result, it's an extremely confusing system, and it's very difficult to find what you need."

Jentsch presented the findings in June at a meeting in Washington, D.C., with officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the Air Transport Association, a trade organization for U.S. airlines.

The research by Jentsch and graduate students Raegan Hoeft and Janeen Kochan also has been presented at several other conferences attended by leaders of the FAA; the International Civil Aviation Organization, which strives to achieve international standards for flight operations and safety; and EuroControl, an organization with members from 33 countries that works toward a seamless air-travel system in Europe. Flight Safety Digest, the leading publication of the Flight Safety Foundation, published the findings this spring.

Kochan has worked 17 years as a full-time pilot for cargo airline ABX Inc. She also has given nearly 3,000 hours of flight training for pilots and is president of a small business that offers training in human performance skills and exercise physiology to the medical and aviation industries and educational institutions.

For more than a decade, pilots, air traffic controllers and others have sought changes in the way Notices to Airmen are delivered. Some changes have been made as technology develops, as pilots now are able to access the notices online or by calling a flight service center. The format of the notices, however, is basically the same as when the messages were sent by Teletype machines 30 years ago. Messages contain many abbreviations, and there's no way for pilots to sort them by time, place or altitude to figure out which ones are relevant to their flights.

Jentsch, Hoeft and Kochan gave written surveys to 77 pilots and dispatchers, most of whom indicated they want the notices to be written in "easy-to-read, plain language."

Jentsch said he is encouraged by the fact that the FAA, International Civil Aviation Organization and EuroControl all seem interested in working to change the way notices are issued and received.

Changes would make flying safer and more efficient for pilots and passengers, as pilots wouldn't have to spend as much time going through the notices. The changes also could help pilots of private planes stay out of legal trouble if descriptions of temporary air-space restrictions, such as those that surround the president wherever he goes, became clearer and easier to find, Jentsch said.

UCF's Team Performance Laboratory has received $2.2 million from the FAA in the last six years to help create scripts for flight-training simulations and to study ways to improve training for pilots in areas such as flying automated aircraft and dealing with unexpected events. The Notices to Airmen portion of that research cost about $75,000.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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