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Read-back or Hear-back

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Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
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Read-back is defined as a procedure whereby the receiving station repeats a received message or an appropriate part thereof back to the transmitting station so as to obtain confirmation of correct reception. (ICAO Annex 10 Vol II).


An uncorrected erroneous read-back (known as a hear-back error) may lead to a deviation from the intended clearance and may not be detected until the controller observes the deviation on his/her radar display.

Less than required vertical or horizontal separation (and an AIRPROX) is often the result of hear-back errors.


The flight crew must read back to the air traffic controller safety-related parts of ATC clearances and instructions which are transmitted by voice. The following items must always be read back:

a) ATC route clearances;
b) clearances and instructions to enter, land on, take off from, hold short of, cross or backtrack on any runway; and
c) runway-in-use, altimeter settings, SSR codes, level instructions, heading and speed instructions and, whether issued by the controller or contained in ATIS broadcasts, transition levels.

Other clearances or instructions, including conditional clearances, must be read back or acknowledged in a manner to clearly indicate that they have been understood and will be complied with.

The controller must listen to the read-back to ascertain that the clearance or instruction has been correctly acknowledged by the flight crew and shall take immediate action to correct any discrepancies revealed by the read-back. (ICAO Annex 11 Chapter 3 Para 3.7.3)

Aspects of read-back/hear-back

The pilot’s read-back must be complete and clear to ensure a complete and correct understanding by the controller. The action of reading back a clearance gives the controller an opportunity to confirm that the message has been correctly received, and if necessary, to correct any errors.

Read-back of a clearance should never be replaced by the use of terms such as “Roger”, "Wilco" or “Copied”. Likewise, a controller should not use similar terms to acknowledge a message requiring a definite answer (e.g. acknowledging a pilot’s statement that an altitude or speed restriction cannot be met).

Failure to correct faulty read-back

The absence of an acknowledgement or a correction following a clearance read-back is perceived by most flight crews as an implicit confirmation of the read-back. The absence of acknowledgement by the controller is usually the result of frequency congestion and the need for the controller to issue clearances to several aircraft in succession.


The bias of expectation of clearance in understanding a communication can affect pilots and controllers. The bias of expectation can lead to:

  • Transposing the numbers contained in a clearance (e.g. a flight level) to what was expected, based on experience or routine; and,
  • Shifting a clearance or instruction from one parameter to another (e.g. perceiving a clearance to maintain a 280 degree heading as a clearance to climb/descend and maintain flight level 280).

Failure to request confirmation or clarification

Misunderstandings may include half-heard words or guessed-at numbers. The potential for misunderstanding numbers increases when an ATC clearance contains more than two instructions.

Reluctance to seek confirmation may cause pilots to:

  • Accept an inadequate instruction (over-reliance on ATC); or,
  • Determine for themselves the most probable interpretation.

Failing to request clarification may cause flight crew to believe erroneously that they have received an expected clearance (e.g. clearance to climb to a requested level).

Failure to question instructions

Failing to question an instruction can cause a crew to accept an altitude clearance below the minimum safe altitude or a heading that places the aircraft on collision course with another.


Pilots must read back the safety related part of all communications.

ATCOs must listen carefully to the read-back and correct any factual error or any apparent misunderstanding.

If there is any doubt in the minds of flight crew as to the precise content of a clearance, or there is any doubt about how to comply (for example the identity or location of a waypoint) then they should request a repeat of either the clearance or a specific part of it that was not understood by the request 'Say again'.

Accidents and Incidents

The following events include the missing of an incorrect read back as a factor:

  • A320 / F50, Adelaide Australia, 2016 (On 17 August 2016, a Fokker F50 crossed an active runway at Adelaide ahead of an A320 which was about to land after both its pilots and the controller involved had made assumptions about the content of radio transmissions they were aware they had not fully heard. The Investigation found that the A320 crew had responded promptly to the potential conflict by initiating a low go around over the other aircraft and noted that stop bars were not installed at Adelaide. In addition, aircraft taxiing across active runways were not required to obtain their crossing clearances on the runway control frequency.)
  • E145, en-route, north east of Madrid Spain, 2011 (On 4 August 2011, a Luxair Embraer 145 flying a STAR into Madrid incorrectly read back a descent clearance to altitude 10,000 feet as being to 5,000 feet and the error was not detected by the controller. The aircraft was transferred to the next sector where the controller failed to notice that the incorrect clearance had been repeated. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft received a Hard EGPWS ‘Pull Up’ Warning and responded to it with no injury to the 47 occupants during the manoeuvre. The Investigation noted that an MSAW system was installed in the ACC concerned but was not active.)
  • A333 / A319, en-route, east of Lashio Myanmar, 2017 (On 3 May 2017, an Airbus A330 and an Airbus A319 lost prescribed separation whilst tracking in opposite directions on a radar-controlled ATS route in eastern Myanmar close to the Chinese border. The Investigation found that the response of the A330 crew to a call for another aircraft went undetected and they descended to the same level as the A319 with the lost separation only being mitigated by intervention from the neighbouring Chinese ACC which was able to give the A319 an avoiding action turn. At the time of the conflict, the A330 had disappeared from the controlling ACCs radar.)
  • A319 / A320, Naha Okinawa Japan, 2012 (On 5 July 2012, an Airbus A319 entered its departure runway at Naha without clearance ahead of an A320 already cleared to land on the same runway. The A320 was sent around. The Investigation concluded that the A319 crew - three pilots including one with sole responsibility for radio communications and a commander supervising a trainee Captain occupying the left seat - had misunderstood their clearance and their incorrect readback had not been detected by the TWR controller. It was concluded that the controller's non-use of a headset had contributed to failure to detect the incorrect readback.)
  • SF34/AT72, Helsinki Finland, 2011 (On 29 December 2011 a Golden Air ATR 72 making a daylight approach to runway 22R at Helsinki and cleared to land observed a Saab 340 entering the runway and initiated a low go around shortly before ATC, who had observed the incursion, issued a go around instruction. The Investigation attributed the breach of clearance by the Latvian-operated Saab 340 primarily to poor CRM, a poor standard of R/T and inadequate English Language proficiency despite valid certification of the latter.)

Related Articles

Further Reading

AGC Safety Letters:

EUROCONTROL Action Plan for Air-Ground Communications Safety: