Menu Close

NOTAMS Are Garbage

Nobody Pays Any Attention To Them

Article appeared in Flying Magazine February, 2019 by John King

NOTAMS have their place in aviation. Where that place is is up for debate.

“That’s what NOTAMS are.  They are just a bunch of garbage that nobody pays any attention to.”  It would be a dramatic statement regardless of who said it.  But this was Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), at a hearing.

Sumwalt had reason to be upset.  An Air Canada plane had come within 13 feet of another airliner on a go-around after having made an approach to taxiway Charlie at San Francisco International Airport instead of runway 28R.  The left runway was not illuminated, because it was closed.  The pilots lined up with the right of the two remaining sets of lights.

The frustrating part is the Notice-To-Airman (NOTAM) System is in place to help prevent exactly this kind of mistake.  And the pilots did have a warning of the closure—on page 8 of their 27-page NOTAM report.

People who design cockpits have picked up on the need to guard against information overload.  If there is a light or horn to warn about everything, then nothing stands out.  It is the same as if there were no warnings at all.  A first step in NOTAM reform would be to review whether having fewer, more impactful NOTAMS might actually be an improvement in risk management.

Chairman Sumwalt isn’t the first person to complain about NOTAMs.  After Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe landed on a closed runway, he said that while “technically” pilots should “probably” check NOTAMs, it would be impractical for him to do so on the many flights he makes to small airports in Oklahoma each year. “People who fly a lot just don’t do it,” Inhofe told the Tulsa World.

His complaint was that NOTAMs should be more accessible and easier to find.  So, after his experience, Senator Inhofe championed the 2012 Pilot’s Bill of Rights.  Included in its many provisions was a requirement for the “NOTAM improvement panel” which, among other things, created an online search tool to help pilots find NOTAMs.  But the tool is clunky to use, and the FAA won’t allow you to use it until you have agreed not to make it your only briefing.

They consider the tool not to be a “complete and accurate source.”  The FAA wants you to contact Flight Service instead.  So, Inhofe included a provision in last year’s FAA Reauthorization Act that all NOTAMs be posted in a publicly-available, central online forum.

But there is another problem with NOTAMs.  They appear to be written to serve the government rather than the reader.  They often lead off with legalese stating their authority to place restrictions on airspace and the penalties for violation.  We recently had an airshow at a nearby military field that closed our local airport intermittently.  The FAA issued two separate NOTAMs that had to be looked at together to understand the closure times.  That, plus the usual coded format, made them a real struggle to understand.

Of course, each NOTAM started out by stating their legal authority for the airspace closure in all caps.  Then, like all NOTAMs, they continued in the standard NOTAM language only a computer programmer could love.  First, they gave the closed area as a radius around a latitude and longitude (backed-up by the seven-digit coded reference to a direction and distance from a VORTAC).

Next, they stated the date and Greenwich Mean Times (GMT) of the beginning and end of the time periods, each coded with six-digits.  Each NOTAM continued in all caps with three ungrammatical non-sentences to describe the purpose of the closure, and to state the rules.

They finished with the telephone number of the “CDN facility” and the available hours, again using those six-digit date and time codes.  I had no idea what a “CDN” facility is, so I called the number to ask them what it meant.  The person answering the phone didn’t know either. After about a 20-minute web search, he reported that “CDN” stood for “Coordination Facility.”

The fact that NOTAMs are extremely difficult to read once they do get in the hands of pilots is perhaps the biggest problem of all.  The style stems from the 1850s, when communications were slow and expensive.  It violates virtually every principle of good readability.

To reduce the number of keys needed on the teletype machines of the time, they used all caps, which due to their uniform, block-like shape are difficult to tell apart from each other.  Plus, to save space they used codes and abbreviations.  All of this might have made sense in the in the 1800s, but today, in the age of huge bandwidths and of practically free communications technology, there is absolutely no excuse for it.

Being stuck in the 1800s also means that NOTAMs don’t make use of the many very basic tools that the rest of the world uses routinely to make our written communications user friendly.  Even something so simple as varying type fonts and headlines to show the organization of a communication helps make understanding much easier.  Plus, of course, with the availability of images that can easily be captured and displayed on our handheld devices, there is no reason not to back up a description with a graphic every now and then.

With the availability of computers, we should go even further and have “smart” NOTAMs.  If a runway is closed, the system should, at a minimum, tell me about the runway closure before it tells me about the rest of the implications such as the localizer, glideslope, and lights all being out of service—if it tells me about them at all.

Another feature of “smart” NOTAMs might be to give me information grouped in the context of how I will use it.  There are some NOTAMs that would only be important in instrument or night conditions.  If I am going to fly on a day, VFR trip, an unlighted tower 3 miles away wouldn’t be a high probability of being a problem.

Considering the importance of their messages, NOTAMs should be the ultimate in accessibility, readability, and ease of use.  In the rest of our lives, the tools we all use on a daily basis—the Internet, cell phones, tablets, digital maps—are improving continuously.  The fact that NOTAMs have remained so substandard in this era reflects profound indifference and is a breach of faith and trust.

The great strides being made by commercial flight planning programs are largely compensating for this abject failure, but it is the government’s responsibility to get this right in the first place.  It is time for the the folks who run the program to demonstrate that they have the interest of airmen at heart.  No longer should NOTAMs be, as Chairman Sumwalt says, “…just a bunch of garbage that nobody pays any attention to.”

 

42 Comments

  1. Bob S.

    Why in the world would I ever trust my life to my 56 year old eyes trying to decode that 1920’s telegram message that metars and such come out in? I learned how to decode them for the written and my checkride and I will never do it again as long as I can get them already decoded.

  2. Todd

    It is bizarre that in the age of glass panels, ADSB and such that the most important and recent safety data is still transmitted in such an obscure coded format a day late and a dollar short. Perhaps we should change the format to Morse code and use signaling mirrors – who really needs all those pesky letters and numbers anyway.

  3. Chuck Stone

    Wow, almost every comment negative concerning NOTAMS, PIREPS, TAF’s, and METAR’s. I would think that would be a sufficient sampling to petition AOPA to ask FAA to make some changes to make them easier to read and more useful. The new FAA administrator is a former airline pilot and certainly understands what we are saying.
    The comment about the Air Canada SFO incident pretty much sums it up for me, “the runway NOTAM was on page 8, of a 27 page document!

    I use Foreflight and think it is the best EFB tool in my bag, it readily converts the FAA coded information into plain English for most information we use, but not all.

  4. John Saviano

    Very well written. I often wonder why so much in aviation is still in difficult to decipher code! Let’s focus less on code-breaking and more on what is the safest approach

  5. Ben Brannen

    I never finished my pilot training I started in my early 20’s. At 58 as a systems analyst, finishing is still one of my bucket list items. Plus it’s just plane fun. (pun intended).

    I know the high level technicals of how to modernize but have no clue to whom to make the suggestions. Here are some technical modernization examples I think might help:

    A modern moving radar map is something much easier for the public to understand – we are subject to it everyday. Various flight levels can also be represented and computers can scan for any problems along and around the intended flight path and alert the pilot immediately.

    A picture of the runways large enough to read runway numbers on a computer screen with Red X’s on it could be a first indicator of a closed runway as well as animated winds and speeds.

    In real life, at night, for larger metropolitan areas, runways outlined in LED’s with an appropriate color and laser light shooting large ‘X’s across closed runways to mimic the picture shown on the computer or tablet screen.
    As a side note – this laser light would not interfere with the pilots since it would be low to the ground. These LED light strips can also be embedded in the runway and taxiway edges as well as heated during the winters so snow and ice can’t interfere with them visibly.

    Rolling out this equipment could be rather expensive for smaller airports. So I add another suggestion: Augmented Reality.

    Augmented Reality, would be the fastest and least expensive way to update the entire airspace in realtime. Briefers and cartographers avenues would change slightly to updating the Augmented Reality system. They would be able to process more data because the computers could enhance the amount of data processed.

    Something else that always confused me, was this: based on the available technology, why are we still doing everything the hard way. Why is it that squawk codes don’t include the tail number and other info about the flight sent to the towers. Things like what radio frequency is the pilot monitoring, how about the pilots cell number? They can already see the speed and altitude with ADSB. Phones can already collect transmit all of this information. So how about a simple program as a backup that can be interrogated by an airport or another passing aircraft.

    Not all of these ideas are perfect but I make the suggestions as a starting point.
    I totally agree that the technology has been around for a long time, and has only gotten better, cheaper, and faster with each passing year. I look to that future of aviation with eagerness.

  6. Lyle Mead

    Changing Notams to be written in plain English would no doubt end up making flying safer. The FAAs main mission is to improve safety. So I think the big question is, why can’t they make the change, or why can’t they move out of the dark ages?

  7. Joe M

    (apologizes for commenting on a topic that might have not reviewed in other a year)

    The presentation of NOTAMs in addition of using mixed case typography and plain English might also benefit from grouping similar attributes akin to the Safety Data Sheets used in hazardous material logistics

  8. Terry Ketron, CFI-I

    You pilots do realize that if they eliminate the codes and secret messages that our SUPER PILOT decoder rings will no longer be “cool” … Annnnd… they will have to make up at least seven more questions for the Pilot Knowledge tests.

  9. Sunny Lowe

    This is only one of the large problems here.
    The first is the NOTAMs. They should be all graphical. (Runway closed? XXX in Foreflight right on top of the runway) Lights out on a tower? Broken Lightbulb emogie right on the tower. Temp Tower? New tower on the obstructions layer. Restricted airspace? Highlight it in the TFR Layer.

    The second problem is weather briefings. They is no reason these should not be in plain English. Same issue. Spell it out and make it graphical.

  10. Richard W.

    As Christian said, put the legal authority at the end where it can be ignored. Or have a quick reference to somewhere in the Federal Register where this is outlined and everyone can then fergtaboutit. Dividing NOTAMS into IFR only, VFR, Airports, etc. by heading and subject grouping would likely help. So would sending those that can be read on a computer screen with color highlights showing what is important. But just having a top level clearly written subject heading would do a lot: (Name) Airport Runway (#) Closed!”, “VOR (Name) Out of Commission,” “VIP TFR at (Name) Airport,” “(Name) Airport Short Term Tower” Then give the details in a consistent and coherent format without a ridiculous overload of abbreviations.

  11. Andrew

    I got started late flying and finally got my pilot certificate about 14 mos ago. I think of myself as a safe pilot but recently Had to hit “pause’. Notams are extremely difficult to read and tiresomely repetitive. Over time I started to skim through them, thinking I’ve seen that one before. Then I caught myself not reading them once b/c “I’m only doing pattern practice”. I went back to the basics and now spend additional time preparing for even basic flight ops…reading all the NOTAMs. I don’t like it but until they improve on the system it’s all we’ve got.

  12. Jim Nardulli

    It’s not just NOTAMS. As a student pilot, trying to make sense of PIREPS has proven to be a futile undertaking. I can easily (finally) digest most of a METAR or TAF. But is ‘most’ really good enough?
    KSPW 021500Z AUTO 26013KT 3SM BR OVC002 M01/M02 A3003 RMK A02 T10061022 or KMHK 021452Z VRB06KT 10SM OVC009 06/02 A3013 RMK A02 SLP206 T00610017 – being honest, everything after the RMK I typically don’t ‘see’ because I never can recall how to decode all that. I know that’s not good practice – but when the first task is to fly the damn plane…

  13. Christian von Delius

    Like you said below, so archaic and with computers today, no problem to adapt;
    How about airport name, Local time, What in ENGLISH not abbreviations.
    TAFs & others need the same treatment. No wonder I don’t read them.
    Put the coded crap (CDN) at the bottom, so if we CARE, we know where it is.
    Should be:

    Glacier International, Kalispell, MT 16:55 (KGPI)
    50*F/10*C Dewpoint 27*F/-2.8*C
    30.06″HG
    Variable wind: 5mph
    Visibility: 10 miles
    Ceiling: 12,000’AGL
    + Scattered clouds: 7,000′ AGL
    No significant Weather.

    NOT (or at least at bottom or as a link)
    KGPI 012155Z VRB04KT 10SM SCT050 SCT070 10/M03 A3006 RMK AO2 SLP195 T01001028
    Conditions at: KGPI (KALISPELL , MT, US) observed 2155 UTC 01 April 2019
    Temperature: 10.0°C (50°F)
    Dewpoint: -2.8°C (27°F) [RH = 40%]
    Pressure (altimeter): 30.06 inches Hg (1018.0 mb)
    [Sea-level pressure: 1019.5 mb]
    Winds: variable direction winds at 5 MPH (4 knots; 2.1 m/s)
    Visibility: 10 or more miles (16+ km)
    Ceiling: at least 12,000 feet AGL
    Clouds: scattered clouds at 5000 feet AGL
    scattered clouds at 7000 feet AGL
    Weather: no significant weather observed at this time

    Of course, each NOTAM started out by stating their legal authority for the airspace closure in all caps. Then, like all NOTAMs, they continued in the standard NOTAM language only a computer programmer could love. First, they gave the closed area as a radius around a latitude and longitude (backed-up by the seven-digit coded reference to a direction and distance from a VORTAC).

    Next, they stated the date and Greenwich Mean Times (GMT) of the beginning and end of the time periods, each coded with six-digits. Each NOTAM continued in all caps with three ungrammatical non-sentences to describe the purpose of the closure, and to state the rules.

    FAA- Time to move into today…

  14. John Brundage

    About 10 years ago I wrote a letter about the readability of notams to the the Director of Safety at my local FSDO. I included a notam printed from DUAT. It was written in all capital letters, & all the sentences were run together. It was very difficult to read & understand. I also included a rewritten version of the same notam with all the same words. Only the initial letter of sentences was capitalized & other terms that are normally capitalized, such as VORTAC, NDB, KDTW, etc. I included an extra blank line between topics & indented the lines following the initial line for each topic.

    I also included a website for the NASA publication, “ On theTypography of Cockpit Documentation,”
    https://ti.arc.nasa.gov/m/profile/adegani/Flight-Deck_Documentation.pdf

    The above document explains why text using all capitals is harder to read than text in lower case. The same is true for notams.

    The FSDO director of safety said my rewritten version was orders of magnitude easier to read than the original notam, & that she would. pass what I had written up the chain of command. As you can see nothing has changed.

    Getting rid of the of the practice of making entire Notams upper case & running all the sentences together would not cost anything, & it would make it much easier for pilots to read them & much easier for the people who write notams to proof read what they have written.

  15. John Gebhard

    NOTAMs make sense…like ICAO Flight Plans make sense. I haven’t heard any complaints about that bit of stupidity. Since when has the United Nations ever promulgated common sense yet that is what we have adopted.

  16. Phil D.

    I agree with much of what your observations are, but here’s the deal: like the old “saw” goes, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

    NOTAMS should be merged — plain language — into the clearances delivered by the upcoming CPDLC (“data link”) system, including how it affects traffic flow and instrument approaches. Shucks, the FAA should even include hyper links with highlighted changes and amendments presented right on those fancy glass displays for good measure.

    …. or is all this just “pie-in-the-sky.”

  17. bob McDonald

    This is truly inlightening!
    I misinterpreted one just the other day.. The super conscientious briefer took his time to find it to help confirm my interpretation… ,fortunately I had the NOTAM #, which helped!! The source that I got the NOTAM from read incorrectlly.
    Thank God for LEIDOS FSS !!!!
    b. McDonald
    CFIIA

  18. Jennifer

    THANK you for this very helpful and educational article! All this time, I thought it was just me…
    Very thoughtful and reasonable suggestions for making a hopelessly unusable system usable. Not sure how “garbage in” is supposed to facilitate “safety out”.

  19. Andrew Orton

    This should also be applied to TAFs and METARs. There is no excuse for the antiquated communication format used by these systems today.

  20. Robert Hancock

    Just a simple thought from a simple pilot. How about abbreviated notam’s and the full notam’s if more info is needed. Kinda like a briefing. Thank you all for all you do to keep all of us safe.

    • Glenn Kautt

      So, why isn’t the FAA held accountable? If Notam communication was a business it would be backrupt!

      There’s got to be a department or division or branch that handles this stuff. Drag out the folks, reassign them all or free up their careers.
      Then, hire a bunch of professional communications and writers to redesign the whole thing. It would happen at “light speed” compared to “FAA speed.”

  21. Ellen

    Excellent points. Government still using a communications protocol based on 19th Cen tools! Would be laughable if it wasn’t dangerous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Posts