Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Bad Names -> People Die; Good Names -> Pilots Smile

After bashing the FDA for its lack of transparency in reviewing drug names in my FDA's Naming Police post, I need to balance the score by saying hooray for the FAA's policy of naming navigation points. In the Wall Street Journal (21 March 2006), an article titled "When Pilots Pass the BRBON, They Must be in Kentucky" explains why the FAA changed its policy of giving meaningless five-letter names to navigation points, and that it now assigns memorable names that give regions distinctive semantic "landmarks." For example, the nav points around Montpelier VT are HAMMM, BURGR, and FRYYS, while the series of points that guide pilots into St Louis include SCRCH, BREAK, FATSS, and QBALL.

I don't know much about aviation, but these navigation points (intersections of the radial signals from ground beacons or satellites) are used by pilots to navigate, and if they aren't memorable, a pilot might set autopilots to fly to the wrong locations. When planes fly to the wrong place they might run into each other or to mountains. So poorly designed names could cause people to die.

Nancy Kalinowski is the FAA's Director of Airspace and Aeronautical Information Management, the department that assigns these names. Way to go, Nancy -- and there are some people at the FDA who could probably use a nudge to be more customer-oriented in the name game.

And while it was neat to see two stories about naming in the Wall Street Journal in just a couple of days, too bad they were assigned to different authors. It would have been provocative to contrast the FDA and FAA naming philosophies in a single article.

-Bob Glushko

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