Should I Start or Finish My ATC Read Back with My Call Sign?

A while back, someone in the standards department at my airline said we should strive to precede every read back to ATC with our flight call sign.

ATC: “Airline 353, descend and maintain 5000.”

Pilot:Airline 353, descending to 5,000.”

Start with the call sign, or finish with it?

Most pilots acknowledge ATC directives by reading back the directive, and then stating the call sign.

ATC: “Airline 353, turn right, heading 240.”
Pilot: “Heading 240, Airline 353.”

Which is Correct?

The standards guy said beginning each read back with the call sign is good radio discipline. I agree. He also said the practice lets ATC immediately know which flight got the message. His concern was, busy controllers listen to the read back to make sure the vector or altitude change was correctly received, but may stop listening before verifying the clearance went to the correct flight.

Either He Gets it or He Doesn’t

My opinion? Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Either the controller hears the entire read back or doesn’t. Hearing the call sign and the read back of the clearance is equally important.

Chop Off Your Read Back to Spite Your Controller

An air traffic controller I know also believes it’s better to begin every read back with your call sign. The controller says some pilots with lousy mic-keying habits and tend to chop off the first syllable of their transmissions: “__ta ABC, passing 9,000 for 6,000.”

That controller would rather have part of the call sign chopped off than the meat of the read back chopped off. I raise the B.S. flag on that. Truncating a call sign can have serious consequences, especially when there are 2 aircraft on the frequency with similar sounding call signs. A wise controller would ask for a repeat if any part of the read back was missing.

The Book of Common Wisdom

Let’s go to the source to see what the Airman’s Information Manual says is a best practice:

4−2−3. Contact Procedures
c.Subsequent Contacts and Responses to Callup from a Ground Facility.

Acknowledge with your aircraft identification, either at the beginning or at the end of your transmission, and one of the words “Wilco,” “Roger,” “Affirmative,” “Negative,” or other appropriate remarks;

“United Two Twenty−Two on one two three point four” or “one two three point four, United Two Twenty−Two.”

I still believe preceding each read back with your call sign is the way to go. It may challenge your short term memory to mentally hang on to ATC’s clearance while you rattle off your call sign, but flying is challenging. The AIM says it doesn’t matter whether you precede or follow your read back of the numbers with your call sign, as long as you include your call sign.

What do you think?


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4 thoughts on “Should I Start or Finish My ATC Read Back with My Call Sign?”

  1. Your correct each way is available to pilots and in fact during subsquent transmissions the pilot may do it differently and if the controller feels like it is a conversation he may fall into a trap of not using a call sign at all or including a call sign onto the end of a clearance which is incorrect. My opinion is that your example of the directive first then the call sign is representative of a large majority of read backs in which human factors has a greater influence.

    1. Hey MT. I think when pilots tack their callsign on to the end of their transmission, it’s because it is easier. I’m not defending the practice, but that’s probably the psychology that’s in play. It’s good to hear a controller’s perspective on this. Sounds like it can cause problems for pilots and controllers.

  2. ICAO doc 9432 para. states “An aircraft should terminate the read-back by its call sign.” Many international states have translated or interpreted that to mean any reply whatsoever and have incorporated that into their AIP. The fact that it states should would allow the pilots therefore to state the call sign a the beginning, except in those countries where they have modified the ICAO rule to be mandatory. As a former controller 25+ years in the USA and another 5+ internationally, I would agree that as a controller I always preferred to hear the call sign first, for the reasons issued previously. My only contribution is to state that most generally, either 1st or last is technically correct,, except where it is mandated. My experience has been that it normally depends on what the airline operators teach their pilots. American pilots do it the way I would prefer. I`m guessing on an international level it`s closer to 50-50.

    1. David,

      Thank you for your comment. It always helps to have an air traffic controller’s viewpoint. I hope you’ll look around this website and offer your opinion on other topics.


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