Garbage as in they contain TOO MUCH information
Hard to pare down NOTAMs
Could WAZE technology deliver information when relevant
NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt called the NOTAM system in the U.S. “messed up” this week during a hearing on the July 7, 2017 incident at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in which an Air Canada Airbus A320 nearly landed on a crowded taxiway. The crew mistook the taxiway as their cleared runway—28R—because Runway 28L was closed. The pilots failed to catch that note on page eight of the 27-page list the SFO NOTAMs.
After acknowledging the “crew didn’t comprehend the NOTAMs,” Sumwalt then read a verbose and complicated entry that limited a portion of a taxiway to aircraft with a wingspan of 214 feet or less. “Why is this even on there?” he asked. “That’s what NOTAMs are: they’re a bunch of garbage that no one pays any attention to,” adding that they’re often written in a language that only computer programmers would understand.
Sumwalt also relayed a recent experience he had flying the jumpseat into North Carolina’s Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, saying, “There were pages and pages and pages of NOTAMs, including one for birds in the vicinity of the airport…when are there not birds in the vicinity of an airport?”
Not surprisingly, one of the NTSB’s six safety recommendations stemming from this incident is a “more effective presentation of flight operations information to optimize pilot review and retention of relevant information.”
Here is what the NOTAM looks like for SFO on 10/01; there are 87 entries:
And from within that list, the pilots needed to find this Notice that Runway 28L was closed:
Ideally, professional pilots should be able to read all 87 of them and identify the notices that are relevant. Unfortunately, it is easy to find, after the fact, that an important warning was missed.
The diagram (on the left) shows how the information is organized. Typical content includes airport, facility and procedural. The specifics may describe corrections to the aeronautical chart, limiting weather conditions, Standard Instrument Approach Procedures, flight restrictions, closure of runways/taxiways, outage of navigation systems, new or temporary procedures, locations of obstructions and more relevant data. Some of the entries continue on the list for months; others are temporary. The list of abbreviations run for 7 pages and the font is minuscule.
There are airport specific NOTAMs and they are issued for ARTCCs. The information is available online on an app, in most airline pilot ready rooms and at airports. NOTAMs are staffed at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center. There knowledgeable controllers constantly update all of the NOTAMs
Chairman Sumwalt’s term “garbage” is an expression of frustration. His real point is that there is SO much detail, that important information is obfuscated. That is a goal well stated in the abstract. The existence of a construction crane may be considered trivial unless the pilot fails to maintain adequate altitude to avoid the obstruction.
Clearly there is some need to prioritize and/or categories of information included. The mass of Notices makes it difficult to remember/apply that 87th item when lining up a runway or turning into a taxiway or avoiding an obstruction or follow a new AT procedure.
Maybe a technology like WAZE, that makes car drivers aware of specific warnings as the vehicles approach the relevant point, could load the NOTAM information to display it in advance of the interaction?
Good point, Mr. Chairman, but the paring down of NOTAMs may be a difficult process. Perhaps some form of real time displays of the information on a timely basis would work?
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