Why does air traffic say Niner?

Answered by Ricardo McCardle

When it comes to aviation, clear and concise communication is absolutely crucial. One small miscommunication can have catastrophic consequences in the sky. That’s why pilots and air traffic controllers follow strict protocols and use specific language to ensure that their messages are understood accurately. One particular aspect of this is the use of the term “niner” instead of simply saying “nine.”

The reason behind this seemingly peculiar choice lies in the potential for misinterpretation of numbers over radio transmissions. When pilots communicate with air traffic control or other pilots, they rely on radio frequencies that can sometimes be prone to interference or distortion. In such situations, certain numbers may sound similar, making it difficult to discern the intended meaning.

The number nine, for example, can be easily confused with the number five, particularly in less-than-ideal radio conditions. Imagine a scenario where a pilot reports their altitude as “nine thousand feet” but the air traffic controller hears it as “five thousand feet.” This miscommunication could lead to a dangerous situation where aircraft are not properly separated vertically.

To avoid such risks, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established a phonetic alphabet and a set of standard phraseology to be used in aviation communications. This includes the use of specific number pronunciations to minimize confusion.

For instance, the number three is pronounced “tree” to differentiate it from the similar-sounding number two. Similarly, the number five is pronounced “fife” to distinguish it from nine. By using “niner” instead of nine, pilots and air traffic controllers can clearly convey the number without any potential confusion.

Although it may seem unnecessary or even strange to non-aviation personnel, it is an essential practice in the aviation industry. Pilots undergo extensive training to ensure their communication skills are precise and effective, taking into account the potential limitations of radio transmissions.

In my own experiences as a pilot, I have encountered instances where miscommunication over the radio could have had severe consequences. For instance, during a flight, I once heard another pilot report their heading as “zero five zero.” However, due to radio interference, it sounded more like “zero four zero” to me. Thankfully, I double-checked with the air traffic controller, and we clarified the correct heading before any confusion or risks arose.

It’s worth noting that the use of “niner” is not limited to aviation; other industries that rely on clear communication over radio, such as the military and emergency services, also utilize this practice.

To summarize, the use of “niner” instead of nine in aviation communications is a precautionary measure to minimize the potential for miscommunication over radio transmissions. By employing specific number pronunciations, pilots and air traffic controllers can ensure that their messages are clearly understood, reducing the risk of misunderstandings that could lead to dangerous situations.