Air traffic communications in routine and emergency contexts: A case study of Flight 1549 ‘miracle on the Hudson’

Angela Cora Garcia, Bentley University


This paper is a conversation analytic investigation of Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications with U.S. Air Flight 1549 and other flights before, during, and after a critical emergency in which the plane (safely) landed in the Hudson River. While foundational conversation analytic research on air traffic communications has already been done, this method has not yet been systematically applied to air traffic communications during actual emergencies. This project will therefore fill a gap in previous research by analyzing ATC/plane interactions during an actual emergency and investigating whether routinized procedures alone are the most effective when emergency situations occur. I will show how routine interactional conventions in this work setting (e.g., the use of scripted talk and ‘positional’ grammar) help participants to maintain the safe flow of air traffic and to accommodate emergencies when they occur. I will show that during the critical emergency the ATCO and the pilot of Flight 1549 switched from a routinized (scripted) form of interaction to a conversational form of interaction, and at times to a ‘hybrid’ format which combined elements of routine ATC talk with elements of the speech exchange system of ordinary conversation.