Ongoing global events and most recently, activity at the Bardarbunga volcano in Iceland, have brought the word ‘NOTAM’, or ‘Notice to Airmen’ into the public domain as it is discussed on news broadcasts and online. But what is a NOTAM, who is in charge of them and how do they affect where aircraft fly?
As a Team Leader in the NOTAM Office, I am one of a group of people who look after the NOTAM provision 24/7. The NOTAM shift consists of eight staff with varied experience and includes people with civil and military air traffic control (ATC) operational backgrounds as well as pilots, all of whom are expert at handling Aeronautical Data and ensuring that the information being delivered in a NOTAM is meaningful, targeted and based on facts.
The NOTAM office is a department within the Aeronautical Information Service (AIS), which is a specified service undertaken by NATS on behalf of the UK CAA (it is a CAA requirement that all air users should be advised of unusual air activities that might be hazardous).
In a nutshell, a NOTAM is a text message transmitted over a global network via Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network (AFTN). It is delivered to a wide range of aviation related organisations, such as air traffic control, flight planning offices, airlines and Private Pilot Licence (PPL) holders to bring attention to the fact that something affecting the safe operation of aircraft is taking place. This could be airspace restrictions due to volcanic ash, military exercises, closed runways or a whole host of other reasons.
There are even special names given for specific categories of a NOTAM, for example a SNOWTAM is used for notifications of runway/taxiway/apron status with respect to snow, ice, and standing water; and an ASHTAM gives notification of an operationally significant change in volcanic ash or other dust contamination.
A NOTAM can last for various periods of time and is dependent on the reason for it in the first place, so restrictions put in place for a flying display can last for 20 minutes, while a tall crane may be established for several months, indeed years, and has a NOTAM that covers that entire period. That being said, it is good practice for a NOTAM to last a maximum of three months. Beyond that, it is time to think of making the information more permanent and publicising it using other methods, such as the UK Aeronautical Information Publication (UK AIP).
The NOTAM is based on information submitted by a third party and verified for accuracy by a Sponsor, which can be the CAA, aerodrome operators and air traffic units, before being published by our office.
There is an AIS office in every country, and they are responsible for the format (an internationally recognised template) and timely distribution of the NOTAM to a targeted audience. The UK NOTAM Office is responsible for the transmission of all activities within UK airspace. The scope also includes NOTAM for military air bases in the UK, aerodromes in the Channel Islands and overseas territories including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.
If you want more information, a web search on ‘Aeronautical Information Service’ or ‘NOTAM’ will find many and various references to AIS. The UK AIS also has its own website in order to provide access to all of its formal publications including NOTAM and the AIP – particularly helpful for the General Aviation community who may not be filing flight plans. The service it offers is completely free of charge and also provides access to NOTAM distributed by all foreign AIS offices.
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