Miscommunication is highly dangerous

Can the misunderstandings of a few words literally mean the difference between life and death? They can in the airline business. A number of aviation disasters have been largely attributed to problems in communications. Consider the following cases:

History’s worst aviation disaster occurred in 1977 at foggy Tenerife in the Canary islands. The captain of a KLM flight thought the air traffic controller had cleared him to take off. But the controller intended only to give departure instructions. Although the language spoken between the Dutch KLM captain and the Spanish controller was English, confusion was created by heavy accents and improper terminology. The KLM Boeing 747 hit a Pan Am 747 at full throttle on the runway, killing 583 people.

In 1990, Colombian Avianca pilots, after several holding patterns caused by bad weather, told controllers as they neared New York Kennedy Airport that their Boeing 737 was running low on fuel. Controllers hear those words all the time, so they took no special action. While the pilots know there was a serious problem, they failed to use a key phrase – fuel emergency—which would have obligated controllers to direct the Avianca flight ahead of all others and clear it to land as soon as possible. The people at Kennedy never understood the true nature of the pilots’ problem. The jet ran out of fuel and crashed 16 miles from Kennedy Air Port. Seventy three people died.

In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a US built MD-80 tried to land inn heavy fog at Urumqi, in northwest China. They are baffled by an audio alarm from the jet’s ground proximity warning system. Just before impact, the cockpit recorder picked up one crew member saying to the other in Chinese: What does pull up mean? The plane hit power lines and crashed, killing 12.

In September 1997, a Garuda Airlines jetliner crashed into a jungle, just 20 miles south of the Medan Airport on the island of Sumatra, all 234 aboard were killed. The cause of this disaster was the pilot and the air traffic controller confusing the words left and right as the plane approached the airport under poor visibility conditions.

On October 31, 2000, visibility was very poor at Taipei-Chiang Kai-shek Airport because a major typhoon was in the Taiwan area. The pilots of a Singapore Airlines 747, stopping in Taipei en route from Singapore to Los Angeles, had not read a report issued 60 days earlier by Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Administration informing pilots that runway 05R would be closed for construction from September 13 to November 22. Told by the control tower it use 05L for their takeoff, the Singapore pilots taxied onto 05R, which ran parallel. Less than 4 seconds after beginning their takeoff, their plane plowed into concrete barriers, excavators and other equipment on the runway. The plane broke apart and 83 people killed.

Bad weather and poor communication paired up again to create another disaster in October 2001, this time at Milano-Linae Airport in Italy. Visibility was poor and tower controllers were not able to establish visual or radar contact with planes. Miscommunications between the controllers and pilots of an SAS commercial jet and a small Citation business jet, combined with the poor visibility, led to the two planes colliding on the runway. One hundred and ten people died.

The preceding examples tragically illustrate how miscommunication can have deadly consequences. Research indicates that poor communication is probably the most frequently cited source of interpersonal conflict. Because individuals spend nearly 70 percent of their waking hours communicating writing, reading, speaking, listening—it seems reasonable to conclude that one of the most inhibiting forces to successful group performance is a lack of effective communication.