Opinion: How Incomplete Language Standards Threaten Aviation

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Nearly 20 years after English language testing requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers were introduced by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), language continues to threaten global aviation safety. 

“We are now at takeoff.” That ambiguous communication preceded the 1977 runway collision at Tenerife, Spain, and focused industry attention on the importance of communications. 

“We just running out of fuel” captures the failure of an English-as-a-foreign-language flight crew to communicate the urgency of their low-fuel status to busy native-English--speaking controllers at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1990. 

Not every language-related accident involves air traffic control. Threat and error management require clear communication between all members of a flight crew. The crash of Helios Airways Flight 522 into a Greek mountainside illustrates how poor multilingual flight deck communications can have tragic consequences. Investigators described unsuccessful communications between the German-speaking captain, his Greek--speaking first officer and their British ground engineer. “Language difficulties prolonged resolution of the problem,” they concluded. The crew could not effectively troubleshoot a warning horn and did not notice a pressurization switch set to manual instead of automatic, resulting in 121 lives lost. 

The impact of English on safety in aviation is pervasive, and limited English proficiency is insidious and sometimes difficult to discern. As part of the team that developed the ICAO language proficiency requirements adopted in 2003, I believe the standards have been successful in increasing industry awareness of the risks to aviation safety from inadequate English proficiency. The ICAO language standards were a necessary and important first step. 

But challenges remain. Global aviation is still struggling to comply with the ICAO language standards, which address only speaking and listening proficiency requirements for pilot and air traffic control radiotelephony communications. The standards do not address the more intensive oral communications required for multilingual flight deck communications or for flight training in English. There are no ICAO language standards for maintenance technicians, and there are no ICAO reading proficiency requirements for pilots, controllers or maintenance technicians. 

Airplanes are increasingly complex machines. Pilots and technicians learn to operate, maintain and repair aircraft by reading complex manuals not written for an English-as-a-foreign-language audience. A recent industry focus on pilot training to better manage complex automation—and train for high-altitude upset recovery and other critical aspects of flying—should also account for aircraft piloted and maintained by people who use English as a foreign language.   

Today, more than 80% of all accidents can be attributed to human error. Experts acknowledge that improving the excellent safety record in aviation requires the more difficult task of improving human performance. Raising the English language proficiency level of pilots, air traffic controllers and maintenance technicians through global access to safety-focused aviation English curricula is the single most effective measure the industry can take.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is addressing these issues through support for its Language as a Human Factor in Aviation initiative. We are focusing first on the development of English for Flight Training and English for Air Traffic Control curricula as well as an online assessment tool and research to improve industry understanding of language as a factor in aviation safety.

The next critical step to raise global levels of English language proficiency is industry-academic collaboration. Aviation-focused academic institutions like Embry-Riddle can bring state-of-the-art language teaching expertise to curriculum development, and businesses excel at agile response. Safety and fairness additionally require the objectivity and credibility that characterize not-for-profit academic institutions. 

No industry has done more to make the world smaller than aviation. We share a single airspace. Language in aviation is a worldwide problem that can and should be solved through global collaboration.

Elizabeth Mathews is an assistant professor of aerospace and occupational safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and co-author, with Eric Friginal of Georgia State and Jennifer Roberts of Embry-Riddle, of English in Global Aviation: Context, Research, and Pedagogy

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week. 


I have a good friend who is a Ryanair captain and pretty much every day he flies with a complete English as a second language crew, usually with the primary languages being different ones. We whatsapp just about every day, and he shares story after story about the crazy things that happen in the cockpit due to lack of English proficiency of his copilots. The scary thing is he is 100% fluent in English but tells me that most Captains are not. So the mistakes and issues he encounters as a fluent English speaker flying with below-English standards copilots is doubled with the typical Ryanair crew where neither the pilot or copilot are proficient in English, and have different first languages. Add into the mix a non-proficient AIr Traffic Controller, and its a wonder there aren’t more incidents and problems than there are.
A most provocative article and worthwhile. Technical advances in computer translations of languages is moving along. Perhaps the "Star Trek" idea of a universal, instant translator could be in the offing within a few years if we tried? Leaning the nuances of language is difficult - some might say impossible since those of us born to English still have trouble. Keep the schools going and let's improve on what we have thus far.
As an airline pilot I can only confirm E.Mathews views and support the initiative. There remains another critical aspect flying internationally that should to be adressed: The omission to tackle the problem that we allow the use of ICAO-languages and do not dare to question their use at internationally used airports. If you approach large airports in South America or for example Madrid or Paris in Europe, about half of the conversation between controllers and pilots is in spanish or french. If you are not proficient in these languages you will not be able to get the full picture of what is happening around you. With all respect for the cultural meaning of languages, for aviation safety it should be english only. My native language is german.