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Writing the great American notam

Pilots have a short but unambiguous wish list for how the FAA can make notices to airmen (notams) and the system that delivers them more user-friendly, according to the results from a recent AOPA survey.

Make notams easier to find and easier to understand, pilots said. Augment them with graphics when possible. Serve up notams in order of their priority—and if a notam shows up in a pilot’s preflight briefing, do a better job of indicating how the notam might affect the proposed flight.

A notam doesn’t have to be literature, but to some pilots, the stream-of-data approach often seems like an odyssey into confusion.

The AOPA 2021 Notams Survey was conducted in August and September and collected data from 948 pilots who responded to invitations to participate.

The survey’s release came shortly before the FAA's virtual notam modernization meeting on October 7 that focused on present and future system enhancements and amid ongoing meetings of the AIS Reform Coalition, in which AOPA actively participates in addressing aeronautical information services concerns.

“AOPA is working with the FAA to address problems with the notam system, many of which were illustrated and validated in this survey,” said Jim McClay, AOPA director of airspace, air traffic, and security.

As AOPA reported in August, the FAA expressed optimism that pilots would start seeing some notam system enhancements this fall. The modernization effort is to include providing graphical airport construction diagrams, decreasing the number of permanent notams on file as a result of charts being updated more frequently, and making the notam system more resistant to outages as it moves toward being a cloud-based resource.

The survey highlighted that it wasn’t just notams in obscurely coded form that pilots prefer not to ponder to the point of perplexity. Although a strong two-thirds majority of pilots said they find coded notams difficult to decipher, one-third also noted having difficulty understanding notams that have been decoded.

“This would seem to indicate that NOTAM creators must focus on writing NOTAMs understandable by pilots,” added McClay.

Delivery methods are also evolving with the times. According to the AOPA survey, an overwhelming majority of pilots (71 percent) are using electronic flight bags to check current notams before flight, putting EFB service providers into the mix for improving the way notams are presented. Ten percent of pilots said they use the flight service website for that purpose. Six percent call flight service by phone for the before-flight check. Small numbers of respondents said they relied on other resources than those included in the survey as responses.

Only 12 percent of the pilots consumed their notams raw, with the rest finding them more digestible dished up in plain English.

In either case, more than half of respondents reported sometimes finding it difficult to grasp how a notam could impact their plans; one-fourth “often” encountered that problem.

As the results would suggest, 77 percent believed that “ease of understanding content” needed improvement. Roughly half the pilots polled also selected the format and number of notams as in need of overhaul. About a third also called for improving the process of accessing notams.

ICAO format

In a forward-looking query, the survey polled pilots on their familiarity with notams presented in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) format, to which the system will transition in December of 2024.

About two-thirds of the respondents said they were either unfamiliar or “extremely unfamiliar” with the ICAO format. On the other hand, less than one-third of pilots reported being concerned about the pending change.

“The good news is that ICAO notams will also be translatable into plain English, so the impact should be minor to the majority of pilots who use decoded notams,” McClay said.

AOPA urged the FAA and industry to step up efforts to make the pilot community aware that the change is coming.

Adopting ICAO standards was also on the agenda of the FAA’s notam modernization session, a recording of which pilots can view online, said McClay, who represented AOPA in the meeting.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, FAA Information and Services, Notams

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