At first, it seems simple.
Pilots miss critical flight information, because it’s buried in 100 pages of fluff. The problem is clear. The solution seems equally obvious: find a way to sort and filter NOTAMs so that we can put the important stuff at the top.
Let’s fix it, we all say! Easy. But the moment that work starts, something strange happens. It quickly gets tough. Fixing NOTAMs is like lifting the lid on a beehive.
So, if you’re a brave NOTAM beekeeper, this guide is for you. Actually, this guide is for me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that will lose their way sometimes. I’ll be using this to get back on track when I get lost, and I hope this helps you too. Maybe when you get stuck, something here can help move you along. If you have something to add, email us!
So, note to self: If you’re not sure what needs to be done, read this (repeatedly).
1. What’s the BIG PROBLEM?
It’s true, there are a lot of issues. But there is only one big problem: PILOTS CAN’T SEE THE CRITICAL STUFF
Why not? It’s buried in an avalanche of minor irrelevant changes. Fixing Notams means fixing this.
For sure, there are other problems: UPPER CASE, hard to read, too many abbreviations (958 in fact), quality. But that’s not the big problem. This is.
2. Remember this picture
This is what needs to change:
This is the big problem. Somewhere in that sea of information is a NOTAM that will put our flight at risk if we don’t see it.
3. Remember these words
Every commercial pilot has views like these. This is who we are fixing it for.
4. NOTAMs are for pilots
Let’s get stuck in. A NOTAM is a message to a pilot. For sure, there are other people that read them. But they are not the primary users. Pilots are.
This might seem ludicrously obvious. Yet, nobody seems to be asking pilots, “Hows my driving”. If 10,000 pilots are asking for change, there is a giant problem. Dispatchers come a close second – especially in North America where there is co-authority.
If we want to fix NOTAMs, we have to see the pilot as the customer. If we think we’ve fixed it, stop a pilot in the terminal and ask, “Are NOTAMs better now?”. That’s the only time to say “We’ve done it”.
5. Start with one question: what’s important?
Every NOTAM is about something. Does a pilot care about that something?
Ask them. Start with a Top 10 – stuff they want, stuff they don’t. Everybody thinks that their NOTAM is important. To a pilot though, only a handful are.
Ask them, and then find a way to highlight those.
6. Remember it’s a beehive
If you are more than 20 minutes into trying to address the NOTAM problem, or some part of it, you’re probably already overwhelmed. It’s a beehive, remember? You’re not alone.
Why is this? You probably made the mistake of gathering a group of people together and asking for some ideas about fixing NOTAMs. Ask someone for an opinion on the problem, and you’ll get ten. Ask a group, you’ll get a hundred, and quickly lose sight of the Big Problem.
Don’t get dragged under. The solution is simple, it’s just that the process is hard.
7. Keep it SIMPLE
Pilots can’t see the critical stuff. Use this as your mantra and meditate on it.
Simple problem, simple solution. Trust that.
8. NOTAMs are funny.
It’s much more fun to solve a problem when there’s some humour involved. Burst that balloon of heaviness with the joy of trawling through some weird and hilarious NOTAMs. They’re all part of the problem, why not let them make the process more fun?
9. We don’t have to fix it for everyone (at once).
The big problem (refer to 1.) doesn’t affect everyone, so we don’t have to solve it for everyone.
Pretty quickly in the NOTAM fixing conversation, you get “But what about the helicopter pilots“, and the NOTAM group takes a collective sigh: “Damn, this is going to be harder than we thought”.
We don’t have to fix everything in one go. Missing critical stuff is a giant problem for airline pilots, corporate & charter pilots, and anyone flying long distances or internationally. For sure, Rescue choppers at night have a different set of priorities (they actually do want to see Unlit Tower NOTAMs) – but they also don’t have 50 page NOTAM packages. Neither does the PA28 doing circuits at Blackbushe.
Solve the big problem, then come back and solve the rest of the issues next. There is no way that we can fix it all in one go.
That means that this work must focus on that group of pilots most affected: Airline, Corporate, Charter, and anyone flying long distances or internationally.
10. Digital NOTAMs ain’t the fix.
Someone is going to tell you “Don’t worry, SWIM/AIXM/Digital NOTAMs will fix this”. Don’t believe them.
Work on “Digital NOTAMs” has been ongoing for more than 20 years. Right now, in 2023, the target date for SWIM implementation has slipped to somewhere around 2030. There’s a solid chance it might not happen at all (law of new technology – it’s never easy). If “Digital NOTAMs” do start being used in the 2030-2035 timeframe, they will work in 10-15 countries. The other 178 countries (there are 193 ICAO member states) will remain on the current “legacy” NOTAM system.
Even with a utopian SWIM rollout, we would probably just end up “Digitizing the problem”.
That means that either way, the international NOTAM system we have today is the one we will have in 15 years time. This is the one we have to fix.
11. How pilots get NOTAMs is not how you think we get NOTAMs.
When we talk NOTAMs, Aviation authorities are very focused on something called the Pre-Flight Information Bulletin (PIB). It’s a printout of NOTAMs. You can get one from your local ATS Reporting Office (ARO), or by using the CAA’s internet portal. Here’s a sample one from Ireland.
Many NOTAM Offices and authorities think that this how we get NOTAMs. The FAA, similarly, highlights how useful the FNS “Notam Search” is for pilots.
That’s not how we get NOTAMs. Most airline pilots haven’t seen a PIB or Notam Search since they were at flight school. That means that pointing to better PIB’s, improved Notam Search features, or better “Pilot Briefing Portals” is meaningless in solving the Big Problem.
There is only one way that almost all of us get our NOTAMs, and that is from a Notam Provider, usually our Flight Planning company. There are only a handful that cover 95% of all NOTAMs sent to airline pilots: Flightkeys 5D, Lido, Navtech, ARINC, Universal Weather, PPS, Smart4Aviation, and a few others. Whether its Cargolux, Netjets, Air New Zealand, American Airlines, or a single Gulfstream 450 based in Carlsbad, everyone gets their NOTAMs this way.
Fixing Notams means working in partnership with these companies.
12. NOTAMs take unexpected journeys
If we’re gonna fix them, we have to know how they breed. The life cycle of a NOTAM can be surprising. A NOTAM issued by Auckland (NZAA), will be sent out by the New Zealand NOTAM Office in Christchurch, travelling first to Madrid (EAD – as the NOTAM Database Holder), then to Frankfurt (where LIDO will put it into their database), then to Toronto (Back office filtering, then dispatch), and finally to the crew of the aircraft (who get their EFB/PDF in the hotel in Auckland).
It’s a complicated route, but most NOTAMs travel like this. Better understanding that journey helps us to fix them.
13. Let lawyers be lawyers
It won’t be more than 10 minutes before someone says “But if we start leaving things out, someone could get sued”. That will suck the energy out of fixing them quicker than a 100 page briefing pack hitting the cockpit floor.
The current NOTAM system is fundamentally unfit for purpose, and this is widely known. In other words, the idea that the current NOTAM system somehow protects airports, aviation authorities or anyone else issuing a NOTAM is naïve.
Failure to address the glaring flaws in it is wilfully negligent. Putting the onus on the pilot to fish out the few pertinent details is derogation of fiduciary responsibility. Pilots are mostly not reading NOTAMs (it’s impossible).
It’s also a matter of fact that airlines and operators are having to run their own gauntlets of trying to find ways to reduce the size of the briefings, and everyone is doing it differently. Finding a reliable way for them to do that means that the legal aspect improves.
Don’t get sidetracked worrying about legalitites. Focus on making swift, simple, impactful change to radically improve NOTAMs.
* absolutely do not rely on this as legal advice, I watched Matlock when I was 10 and that’s about the extent of my legal expertise. But do continue fixing NOTAMs, that part you ARE an expert on!
14. Filtering using Q-codes and keyword searches works.
It doesn’t. Just ask anyone doing this how hard it is.
15. It IS a big deal
It is. At some point you might think, “Aahh, it’s just kind of annoying that pilots have to deal with that, but it’s not really a big deal …”.
Think again. Pilots not being able to see hugely critical flight information is a big deal. The list of incidents caused by the current NOTAM system is long, and growing. Air Canada 759 (SFO) is the poster case, but there are many others. SAS 1641 (Hamburg), AN124 (Copenhagen), AC1804 (Montego Bay), N303GA (Aspen), Ryanair 128 (Hamburg), … the list goes on.
16. Apps already fixed the Big Problem (no)
Foreflight is cool. Love it. NOTAMs are a little easier to read on it, and sometimes they can be put on a map. There are a bunch more iPhone apps, web apps, tools, highlighters, and graphical products. All of them do a few things really well, for a limited part of the NOTAM system, for a very limited part of the world.
The Big Problem is the briefing package. That’s words. On a page. That’s how we get NOTAMs, how we read NOTAMs, how we see NOTAMs. Apps don’t solve it.
17. It’s going to be really expensive to change things (no)
I think we can fix NOTAMs for about $10,000. Not $10 million, not some even bigger astronomical amount. I think $10K will cover the whole thing.
Might be wrong, might be about right, but the key point is: Money is not the problem. We don’t need to change NOF software, there are no big upgrades required. No budget is needed. What we need to do is find agreement on a simple fix that works.
There are probably three cost elements to this, once a solution is clear:
– A technical review (make sure it works, test it out)
– Training (Notam Offices)
– Flight Planning Software update (commercial product, vast improvement is always repaid quickly)
But consider this. Most larger airlines and aircraft operators have anywhere from 1 to 7 people working on actively processing NOTAMs as they come in. The cost saving from allowing those people to do other work at the airline instead is huge. Easily in the range of $5 million, probably more. (At the very least 100 people do this around the world, at an average salary of $50,000).
18. 60 years – there’s a reason it’s not easy
NOTAM change has been talked about since 1964. Flight International published a snippet from the FAA, declaring that the Notam system was being revamped, and from March 15th that year only essential, critical Notams would be allowed to remain.
If you’re just getting started working on NOTAM fixing, you might not have been stung yet. When you do, come back here for some soothing ointment! There’s more to add to this guide, but that’s it for now.
Confuse those guard bees and get into that hive!