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I’m curious about the history and practicality of the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, etc.) used in aviation communication. While I recognise its universal application in various fields like police services, my question primarily focuses on its aviation aspects:

  1. Origins: When and how did the phonetic alphabet become incorporated into aviation communication? Was there a particular event or need that prompted its adoption?
  2. Word Length and Efficiency: I’ve noticed that some phonetic representations, especially in aircraft call signs like “60NU” (Six Zero November Uniform), can be quite lengthy in terms of syllables. Has there been any industry discussion or attempt to streamline the phonetic alphabet to reduce the number of syllables to one or two per word, for efficiency in communication?
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  • $\begingroup$ Efficiency is not important. Reducing misunderstandings is. It doesn't matter if it takes you .2 seconds longer to say a few more syllables, it does matter if you have to repeat your entire message because someone misheard a letter $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ @60levelchange efficiency surely remains an important aspect in comms? Conciseness is part of effective communication. A desire for efficiency has led to the shortening of callsigns from G-ABCD to G-CD, as well as the use of airline callsigns. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 8:03
  • $\begingroup$ It's not important RELATIVE TO reducing misunderstandings (which themselves will lead to less efficiency) $\endgroup$ Jan 8 at 6:10

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In 1944 english was chosen as the universal aviation language to simplify communications in the sky. Since not everyone is a native english speaker you have issues of accents when using a common language. Not long after in the 50's NATO realized the need for universal pronunciation of letters and numbers and the first phoetic alphabets were proposed and adopted. To ensure smooth communication a set of words was chosen that represent the numbers 1-9 and letters A-Z were chosen that were distinctly pronounceable through many accents and would not be confused with native words in those languages. The goal of the phonetic alphabet is not syllable efficiency but universal pronunciation for which it is well optimized.

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It's an offshoot of military communication protocols, the military being the first institution to adopt large scale use of two-way voice radio. It became obvious early on with carbon microphones, static and audio distortion that a way needed to be found to make letters easier to discern, so two or three syllable words that were phonetically discernable and unique, even when garbled or buried in static, were adopted that could be linked to the applicable letter of the alphabet via that word's first letter.

It's evolved over time to the current Alpha Bravo Charlie standard in aviation, largely the result of an ICAO standardization project implemented after WW2 (during WW2, the US Army used a different phonetic alphabet, starting with Able, Baker, etc).

Other institutions use other variations on the same concept, such as the use of first names to represent letters in policing radio comms.

With numbers, it's mainly a practice of exaggerating the pronunciation of numbers, except for the number nine, which is impossible to discern from the number five if the audio is bad, hence "niner".

In Europe and North America at least, the audio quality of ATC comms has become good enough that you could get away without the phonetic alphabet much of the time, and you often hear 9 just said as "nine" not "niner", but comms audio in other places may not be as good, or you may be talking on HF, which is like ordering a burger at a drive thru. Add to that that need to mitigate workload/fatigue related errors even with good audio, so the protocols are still necessary.

So to answer Question 2, the ICAO phonetic alphabet is the result of a lot of research and evolution over the years to find the ideal phonetic alphabet that is efficient, pronunciation wise, and effective at the same time.

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