Is the content of spoken communications used by air traffic control and pilots defined as part of a rigorous language definition? Such as a morphological or lexical foundational system, or is phraseology the extent of formalization?

And with the advent of text/computer based communications and automation on the horizon so to speak, what is the state of formalizing a language of communication? (If not already answered in the first part of my question.)

References to white papers and other research is fine if the answer requires you to almost write one.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think ATC phraseology is formalised in something like Backus-Naur notation, if that's what you are asking. Also, in real life, Pilot-ATC communications vary greatly from aviation authority prescriptions. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Oct 19 '16 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ @RedGrittyBrick Chomsky based systems like BNF and other related notations aren't likely to work with the natural language aspect of ATC communications. I was hoping there was some guiding document be it based in a weak BNF or a more modern linguistic framework. But if not that is is much of an answer as yes <insert formalization document>. $\endgroup$ – jCisco Oct 19 '16 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ This is a promising question. There are at least rules for using verbs, adverbs, and there are ways to convey urgency, etc. I believe some information can be extracted from ATC manuals and pilot-ATC phraseology guides. Also glossaries. $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 19 '16 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ See also: Defining a grammar of radio telephony and emergencies $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 20 '16 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ Voice communication is going to become less and less of a thing with the implementation of Nexgen in the US. It won't disappear completely, but many vital pieces of ATC information will be exchanged with the aircraft electronically. The rest will be more like clarifications, changes/amendments, and untowered operations. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Oct 20 '16 at 1:25

I don't know about a formal structure, but ground to air and air to ground communications usually follow the 3-W or the 4-W rule.

For air to ground communication - use the 4-W rule:

  • Who the controller is (identification of the controlling agency)
  • Who you are (Aircraft Identification)
  • Where you are (what is you position and altitude)
  • What do you want (state your intentions or request)


Grand Junction Approach, Cessna one seven two Sierra Papa, five miles southwest of the ABC VORTAC at five thousand, five hundred, inbound for Grand Junction to land with ATIS Kilo.

Here the pilot identifies himself as a Cessna with the identification N172SP, that he is five miles southwest of the ABC VORTAC at 5,500 ft MSL, and that he intends to land at Grand Junction airport and has the latest ATIS weather report for Grand Junction.

ARTCC and other air traffic controllers will generally use the 3-Ws to communicate with you

  • Who you are (the aircraft they are giving their instructions to)
  • Who they are (the name of the controlling agency)
  • What they want you to do (instructions for the aircraft in question to follow)


Cessna one seven two Sierra Papa, Grand Junction Approach, turn right to 030. Descent and maintain three thousand two hundred. Expect vectors for runway three zero left. Squawk six four one one and ident.

Here the controller (Grand Junction approach) has advised Cessna 172SP to turn to a heading of 030 and to descend to 3,200 ft MSL. He should also expect further heading instructions for insertion into traffic for runway 30L at Grand Junction airport. The controller also tells the pilot to set his transponder to the code 6411 and ident, so the controller can verify his position.

As a courtesy, and often requested or implied by controllers to verify the pilot in question heard the instructions and will comply, the pilot will read back the instruction in full to the controller, followed by his/her callsign.


Right to 030, descend and maintain three thousand two hundred, expect vectors for runway three zero left, squawk six four one one and ident, Cessna one seven two Sierra Papa.

The NATO phonetic alphabet will be used for individual letters to avoid confusion by both parties as many letters can sound similar on a garbled radio transmission. Other oddities include the use of the word 'niner' in place of the number 9; This is to distinguish from the number 5, which is pronouced "fife".

English is also the accepted international language for use in flying and radio communications, but is only required for flights under instrument flight rules (IFR).

  • $\begingroup$ While tough to pick out with the ear, pilots should be saying the word "fife" instead of "five", and "tree" instead of "three". You are also supposed to pronounce "four" as "fow er". $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Oct 20 '16 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ This answer covers the protocol of exchange, not quite what I was after, though I appreciate the info. Indeed its a great answer to the question: What is the protocol of ATC communications $\endgroup$ – jCisco Oct 20 '16 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer Yeah, that's technically the standard, though a lot of native English speakers ignore it, especially when not operating in airspace that is likely to have aircraft with non-native English-speaking pilots. Even at busy international airports, though, numbers will very frequently be pronounced normally rather than by digit (e.g. "Delta Fifteen Seventy-Four" instead of "Delta One Five Seven Four".) Use of 'Niner' is pretty universal, but tree/fower/fife is less so in practice. $\endgroup$ – reirab Oct 20 '16 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry Those kinds of things are allowed by JO 7110.65W ATC Phraseology Order, Section 2-4-17 and 2-4-20. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Oct 20 '16 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ The FAA AIM contains some examples of standard ATC communication in "Section 2. Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques" (page 4-2-1). Also, the gory details of what every word/phrase used in aviation means are defined in the "Pilot/Controller Glossary" at the end of the AIM faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/media/aim.pdf $\endgroup$ – Thaumaturgic Oct 20 '16 at 16:40

No, aviation phraseology is not part of a rigorous language definition. When learning to speak on the radio, we do not learn specific sentence structures and grammar. Instead, phraseology is defined as a set of standard phrases, which we have to learn by heart and use appropriately. Although these phrases are based on the English language, they do not necessarily follow normal grammar rules, because they have been designed to be as short and unambiguous as possible.

With regards to the advance of electronic communication between ATC and cockpits, standard CPDLC (controller pilot datalink communications) messages have been established. These are based on the spoken phraseology, and are often an exact copy. You can get an idea from the image below of how CPDLC messages are structured. The first column displays the intended message, the second column indicates how it is actually transmitted.

enter image description here (excerpt from PANS-ATM Appendix 5)


Supplementing other answers: there is no formal language for ATC communications, although it has been discussed, and several tasks in contracts have attempted to make recommendations. The language for ATC has its origins in railroad communications.

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    $\begingroup$ Aren’t FAA ORDER JO 7110.65Y and the Pilot/Controller Glossary a type of formalization of ATC language? $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Feb 21 '20 at 13:07

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