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Assume ATC issues a clearance or instruction such as: "N123 turn right heading two two zero, vectors for the visual approach to runway 4, descend and maintain eight thousand" and the pilot responds: "Roger out of twelve for seven, right to two twenty, 123."

If ATC does not correct the pilot's incorrect altitude read-back and an incident occurs (e.g.,loss of separation, airspace violation, etc.) does ATC bear some/all responsibility for the error or does the pilot bear some/all responsibility for the error?

The focus of my question is whether or not there can be some shared responsibility for the ultimate error. For example, if the pilot uses non-standard phraseology in the readback such as (pilot's response to the example instruction above) - "out of twelve for seven, right to two twenty, 123." Instead of "N123 roger, right turn heading two two zero, descend and maintain seven thousand."

The ability of the controller to correctly interpret an incorrect pilot read back is reduced when the pilot uses non-standard phraseology. The cognitive "pattern-matching" verbiage helping a busy controller interpret an incorrect read-back is negatively affected when the pilot's verbiage is missing contextual clues such as reading back the instructions in the same sequence (heading first then altitude) as given by ATC and saying "seven" instead of "seven thousand."

This is one reason (in my opinion) that the Aeronautical Information Manual-AIM describes proper phraseology for ATC-Pilot communication. The pilot's response to the instructions from ATC in the example above conflicts with the AIM's guidance on the use of proper phraseology.

The use of proper, well researched communication procedures is critical in ensuring that misunderstandings are minimized.

Perhaps there may be other factors that may lead to "shared" responsibility. Anyway, I am interested in the feedback from the ASE community. There is no question that mis-heard or misinterpreted ATC-Pilot communication has resulted in serious incidents in the past.

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    $\begingroup$ I know the clearance isn't "legally binding" until the readback is received, so I think it's on the controller. A chum was busted for blowing past a cleared alt to a higher one after a revised clearance to the higher alt was received as he was approaching the first clearance. No big deal. Except he got busted because he didn't stop at the initial cleared alt, even though he'd received a revised higher clearance; he passed through it BEFORE he'd read back the higher alt clearance. He was bewildered by the whole episode to say the least. There is ATC on here so hopefully they'll chime in. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jul 17 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ At an intuitive level it’s hard to see how responsibility can lie anywhere but with ATC - if a readback is required and there’s no acknowledgement of the readback except on an exception basis then the buck stops squarely with ATC. If the pilot did request acknowledgment that their readback was correct then the boot would be on the other foot. $\endgroup$
    – Frog
    Jul 17 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ Not VTC as dupe because the suggested dupe only addresses half the equation... yes, ATC has to listen to the readback & correct it if it's wrong. But if I read something back incorrectly, am I absolved if something bad happens, or is there shared blame? If I request direct XYZ, get cleared direct ABC, read back (and go) direct XYZ... did I just "get my way" if the controller doesn't correct me? (Doubting it!) I'd like to see more info on this aspect, and I see that as the heart of what this question is asking -- distinct from the suggested dupe. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 17 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ @RalphJ: The way I read the emphasized "absolved" is an uncertainty in the pilot's motive. If the pilot read back XYZ intentionally wrong banking on the ATC not picking up on it, in that case the question would be: Can the pilot be held responsible if not corrected for intentionally misreading back? IMO, that's an entirely different law question (mens rea) that is not inferred from this one. But, if XYZ was genuinely misheard by the pilot, then it's the ATC's responsibility based on the dupe. Or maybe there's a nuance I'm not seeing. $\endgroup$
    – ymb1
    Jul 17 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ I have edited my question a bit to more precisely differentiate it from othe similar ASE questions. $\endgroup$
    – 757toga
    Jul 17 at 15:32
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It's on the controller, even if the pilot intentionally read back an error. It has to be that way in "the moment". That pilot's intent is difficult to prove, anyway, but it can be done, in extreme cases.

When was a new radar trainee, so, let's say 1990 (wow, a whole 'nother century), we had a pilot that flew for Rocky Mountain Airways, a regional airline, who was notorious for reading clearances back wrong. He was a former controller, from my area, who had been fired for being on strike, and decided to take it out on whomever may have taken his job. (Yes, I'm a post-strike hire)

He knew our airspace quite well, and would regularly read back altitudes 1000 feet below assigned, and would take that altitude if you didn't catch him.

He knew, for instance, that RCA (Ellsworth AFB) had airspace up to 13,000 feet, and when given a descent to one four thousand, he would read back "one three thousand", which would violate RCA's airspace, if you didn't catch it.

We complained to the airline about it, but nothing changed on our end.

The supes in the area were wise to this, and began pulling tapes from interactions with this pilot, and sent the package off to the airline. They sent an official request as well, which gave it teeth.

He stopped reading back clearances wrong, instead choosing to read them back very slowly. A bit annoying, but no trickery.

After a couple of years, Rocky Mountain Airways went out of business, and we never heard his voice again.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer quite logically describes the commonsense idea that, if a pilot reads something back, the controller ought to catch if the readback is incorrect, and they are responsible if they don't. I have no quibble with the idea that this is what makes sense. As we know, the FAA is not always a shining example of common-sense rulemaking. Can you point to any rule that backs up your answer? $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jul 17 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ Your answer describes things before the interpretive rule. In today's environment, both the pilot and controller share a responsibility to hear and read back correctly. $\endgroup$
    – RetiredATC
    Jul 18 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, they both share responsibility. But in the moment (as I said), the controller is the one whom the onus is on, for ensuring the accuracy of the clearance. It has to be that way, that's why hearback is so important. We both know that that "one time" you mis-hear the readback (usually by hearing what you want, not what the pilot said), it comes back to bite you. When I trained people, I'd stress the importance of being able to "parrot back" what a pilot says, to help trainees build the hearback skill. I'd bet 'em a Coke on it, and we'd pull the tape. $\endgroup$
    – atc_ceedee
    Jul 19 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ randomhead, I'll go with the 7110.65, 2-4-3 a - 2−4−3. PILOT ACKNOWLEDGMENT/READ BACK Ensure pilots acknowledge all Air Traffic Clearances and ATC Instructions. When a pilot reads back an Air Traffic Clearance or ATC Instruction: a. Ensure that items read back are correct. $\endgroup$
    – atc_ceedee
    Jul 19 at 2:13
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According to this AvWeb article, in early 1999 the FAA issued an "interpretive rule" covering this exact situation. The rule is available in text and PDF form at the Federal Register.

Part of the "History" section of the rule states (emphasis mine):

[...] when a miscommunication or misunderstanding occurs, the FAA deems responsible the participant who is the initiating or principal cause of the error. For example, the use of unclear terminology, a failure to hear accurately, or a failure to understand a clear transmission can be the initiating or principal cause of a miscommunication. An example in which an air traffic controller’s role excuses the pilot might arise from the controller’s issuance of an ambiguous clearance or use of misleading terminology that reasonably causes the pilot’s misunderstanding. An example in which neither air traffic control nor the pilot is to blame for a miscommunication might exist when the aircraft’s radio fails.

Much of the section discusses previous NTSB rulings and explores the fact the NTSB sometimes agrees with the FAA's interpretation of various situations, but sometimes not. In general, the NTSB seems to be more willing than the FAA to assign responsibility to ATC for not correcting incorrect readbacks.

In the "Interpretation" section (emphasis mine):

[...] FAA regulations require pilots to comply with air traffic control clearances and instructions. Contrary to the NTSB’s reasoning, pilots do not meet this regulatory imperative by offering a full and complete readback or by taking other action that would tend to expose their error and allow for it to be corrected. Readbacks are a redundancy [...]
Giving a full readback of an air traffic control transmission could result in the mitigation of sanction for a regulatory violation [...] However, the simple act of giving a readback does not shift full responsibility to air traffic control and cannot insulate pilots from their primary responsibility [...] to construe reasonably in the first instance.

Based on the wording, I would expect that a "full" or "correct" readback like "Leaving one-two thousand, descending to seven thousand" would be more "mitigating" than shorthand like "Out of twelve for seven." But in either case, it seems like the FAA will assign most of the responsibility for a clearance bust to the pilot, regardless of whether the controller missed an incorrect readback. Note that the NTSB may differ, and if it gets as far as a lawsuit, the question is what the judge or jury decides, not what the FAA's enforcement policy is.

I do not know if the Rule has been retracted or reinterpreted in the twenty-two years since its publication. The Federal Register page for the rule does not have any obvious sidebar saying "Retracted by Rule XXX published YYY" but I do not know if such a feature would be expected or not.

In my training I was told that I have no legal responsibility for catching an incorrect readback unless I say "readback correct," in which case I had better be darn sure the pilot read back the right thing—but at the moment I cannot point to a black-and-white rule saying that.

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I spent many years in ATC quality assurance. It is a joint responsibility for the controller to issue a valid clearance and ensure the pilot reads it back correctly, and for the pilot to hear the clearance correctly and acknowledge it. If the controller issues a valid clearance, such as "climb and maintain one zero thousand" and the pilot says "climb and maintain one one thousand" and subsequently climbs above ten thousand, there are performance deficiencies for both: the controller for not catching the bad read back, and the pilot for climbing to an altitude he/she was not cleared to.

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  • $\begingroup$ When you use the term "performance deficiencies," that makes sense at an intuitive level (both messed up in some way); does that translate into a violation for either or both? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 17 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Also, welcome to Av.SE - thanks for joining the conversation here! $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 17 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Air Traffic would follow the appropriate performance management for the controller. Depending on the controller's performance history, that could mean several different things. Air Traffic would also report the incident as a possible pilot deviation. It is up to the Flight Standards District Office or airline Certificate Management Office on how to manage the pilot's performance. $\endgroup$
    – RetiredATC
    Jul 17 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ For the controller, it's a performance issue, but depending on the situation, they may get nothing more than a "be more careful". After all, a 20 year controller with no disciplinary problems, and few, if any, errors, will get better treatment, generally speaking, that the cowboy controller with the scattergun phraseology. The pilot, however, may file a NASA report, and basically eliminate the issue on their end, especially if it did not result in an unsafe situation., $\endgroup$
    – atc_ceedee
    Jul 19 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry about the -1, I had a fat-finger moment and now SE is being crappy about me undoing it. Good answer. $\endgroup$ Jul 20 at 17:29

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