Artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and machine learning are showing up everywhere in aviation, except in the cockpit and briefing rooms where pilots need it most. Instead, to gather critical information about a flight, pilots rely on tools and technology that are better suited for teletype machines or dot matrix printers. Today, most flight crews rely on a “wall of text” for weather briefings, Notams, and other information; this hasn’t changed in decades.
The origin of the Notam dates back to 1947. This notice alerts pilots to potential hazards such as runway closures, navaid outages, or other items that affect flight safety.
The legacy of a Notam is that it is a text-based system that uses a string of confusing codes made up of alphanumeric characters that defy most common human factors conventions for presentation and readability. To make matters worse, on a longer cross-country flight, pilots may have to sort through more than 100 messages to determine if the Notam is timely, applicable, or even pertinent.
Ironically, this system of Notams is a hazard in itself. In July 2017, this issue was highlighted by an Air Canada flight crew’s lack of awareness that a runway was closed in San Francisco (KSFO). In this event, the crew attempted to land on a parallel taxiway narrowly avoiding a collision with four other airliners. According to the NTSB, this incident had the potential to become a catastrophe but instead the aircraft descended to 60 feet above ground level (14 feet above an A340, below) before initiating a go-around.
In its report, the NTSB said, “misidentification of Taxiway C—as the intended landing runway—resulted from the flight crew’s lack of awareness of the runway 28L closure due to their ineffective review of the Notam information before the flight and during the approach briefing. Although the Notam about the Runway 28L closure appeared in the flight release and the aircraft communication addressing and reporting system (ACARS) message provided to the flight crew, the presentation of that information did not effectively convey the importance of the runway closure information and did not promote flight crew review and retention.”
During a September 2018 public hearing on the KSFO event, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt III showed his frustration about the ineffectiveness of the Notams system by saying, “That's what Notams are: they’re a bunch of garbage that no one pays any attention to…they’re often written in a language that only computer programmers would understand.”
As a result of this investigation, the NTSB identified six safety issues including a need for more effective presentation of flight operations information to optimize pilot review and retention of relevant information. Specifically, the report stated, “The way information is presented can significantly affect how information is reviewed and retained because a pilot could miss more relevant information when it is presented with information that is less relevant.”
According to the NTSB, this was not an isolated event. The report added, “Multiple events in the NASA ASRS database showed that this issue has affected other pilots, indicating that all pilots could benefit from the improved display of flight operations information.”
Related to Notams, the NTSB made specific a specific recommendation to FAA and Transport Canada to “establish a group of human factors experts to review existing methods for presenting flight operations information to pilots, including flight releases and general aviation flight planning services (preflight) and ACARS messages and other in-flight information; create and publish guidance on best practices to organize, prioritize, and present this information in a manner that optimizes pilot review and retention of relevant information; and work with air carriers and service providers to implement solutions that are aligned with the guidance.”
One area where human factors expertise is needed is in the typography, presentation, and display of the information contained in the Notam. One of the most important elements to be considered to improve readability is the font and style used in the text. Studies suggest that the most effective font is sans serif and the use of an up-and-down style is preferred to the block style. Up and down is easier to read than block. The ascenders (b, d, etc.) and descenders (p, q, y, etc.) help characterize each word in the up-and-down style, whereas the block style appears as a box.
Currently, Notams use a block style. Below is an example of both block and up and down, respectively:
• NOTAMS ARE A BUNCH OF GARBAGE - PLEASE FIX THEM
• Notams are a bunch of garbage - please fix them
In 2017, the FAA identified Notams as a “Top 5” hazard in the National Airspace System. Accordingly, “Two of the identified hazards pertained to issuance/cancellation and prioritization/filtering of Notams. The hazards relate to a lack of Notams or untimely or outdated Notams and the inability of controllers or pilots to distinguish between applicable Notams in the system.”
Ending on a positive note, in the near term, developments in technology, such as the electronic flight bag (EFB) and the associated flight-planning applications hold the most promise to break down the wall of text. There are a number of fantastic apps that help pilots decipher and better organize Notams.
As an example, Foreflight has a Flight Notification and Notam Advisor feature that will translate these notices from raw text and “pin” Notams to specific procedures and airport diagrams. Jeppessen’s FD Pro app will color code taxiways and runways that are out of service. Until the FAA and other aviation authorities fix the Notam system, operators and their crews should leverage the use of an EFB to improve safety.
Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Kipp Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship. He can be reached by email.