TOWER: “I feel like an idiot but maintain visual with the boat, you’re still clear to land 35”

PILOT: “Affirmative 2247”

TOWER: “Affirmative that I’m an idiot or, that you’re gonna maintain a visual?”

PILOT: “No comment”  

Language proficiency plays an important role in aviation safety. From the need to communicate clearly and efficiently, a common language was required to bring world-wide consistency. English was chosen as the ‘language of the skies’ by ICAO. The issue was addressed initially at the Chicago Convention in 1944. Nonetheless, language proficiency testing [for pilots and Air Traffic Controllers] was established in 2008.

Language proficiency in aviation is assessed on a scale between 1 to 6. The minimum operational level set by the International Civil Aviation Organization is level 4. Still, operators, agencies and airlines might set a higher level as a minimum standard of ability for their staff. Generally, level 6 is the standard for an expert speaker. How robust is level 4 to ensure pilot or controller ability is an open question even for subject matter experts.  

Pilots and air traffic controllers must communicate clearly

A common language within a very demanding operational environment is essential for many reasons. For example, Situational awareness is needed in order to understand potential hazards and threats. Evidence suggests that without proper situational awareness the likelihood for accidents and near misses is higher. As such, to manage, operate and monitor the same airspace it makes sense to have in use one language.

One of the aspects which attracted my attention in debates centred around language proficiency is the focus on communication between pilot and air traffic controller. I do not dispute that both these parties are the most important constituents in regard to aircraft related safety-threatening situations. On a similar note, in the majority of safety related cases; pilots and controllers are largely affected by miscommunication. Therefore, considering the nature of their work, pilots and air traffic controllers must communicate clearly. Thus, a universal language is indisputably necessary.

Complacency is often the element responsible for misunderstandings

However, I feel that there is a vast number of other partakers within the industry who act upon operational safety through a good or bad command of the English language. Airside operations, maintenance units, ground handling teams, marshallers, tug drivers, emergency services and many more. Somehow, commonly we forget or undermine the role played by so many actors who are not pilots and controllers. Yet, their work necessitates communication in aviation English. Having previously led and managed multicultural groups, I would say that complacency is often the element responsible for misunderstandings in English.     

As I understand one of the biggest challenges associated with language proficiency is the subject of native and non-native English speakers. Somehow, in aviation circles there is a general notion that English language requirements concern only non-native speakers. This puts a great burden on certain groups while native English speakers remain unaffected. In any case, this belief is unfitting and in contrast to ICAO’s guidelines. A recent report published by  Paul Stevens Director of Mayflower College and CEO of SayAgain, highlighted the difficulties in dealing with language proficiency. His research focused on the safety role of native English speakers. What the industry knows now is that native speakers are worse at delivering their message than others who speak English as second language. And this is a problem when it comes to safety.

Quick solutions to manage the situation

Having read the report, I was curious to find out more. During my meeting with Paul I wanted him to provide few ‘quick’ solutions how could native English speakers can help us to improve communication? “I think the starting point is ’empathy’.” he tells Airport Bureau.  Paul continued, “many native English speakers are monolingual and therefore it can be difficult for them to understand how difficult it is to work in another language, especially in a safety-critical industry like aviation. It’s much more tiring, requires much more ‘brain-power’ and can often be frustrating and reduce confidence.” He went on to be clearer. “So, I would begin with awareness training so that native speakers can be more understanding and patient of the challenges faced by non-native speakers.”    

Paul had more to suggest. “Once empathy is established then we can begin to work on the specific skills and techniques to make life easier for non-native speakers.” he points out. He gave few examples how we can do this.

Speaking at the ICAO-recommended speed of 100 words per minute

Sticking to Standard Phraseology whenever possible

Avoiding jargon and idiomatic language

Enunciating clearly with an intelligible accent

Keeping messages short and concise

Learning how to provide clarification and to resolve misunderstandings

I wanted to hear Paul’s views on another related matter. Should ‘bad communication’ concern critically only pilots and controllers within the aviation sector, I asked him. “No, communication breakdown can affect all aspects of aviation, not only RTF communication between pilots and controllers. The same principles apply to check-in staff, ground handlers, maintenance staff, airport drivers / operators, security screeners, cabin crew, etc.” he stated. “Communication needs to be clear, precise and concise, especially when non-native English speakers are involved.” Paul believes. He encapsulated with one sentence. “Communication is a shared responsibility. We must all play our part, including native English speakers.

Accidents and incidents as result of bad communication

Aviation English is the ‘de facto’ language of global civil air transport. Over the years, as international air-travel grew, many safety concerns were raised in regard to effective communication. As different nationalities and diverse skills and abilities interacted, States had to settle with one language which would bring steadiness. In this way, misunderstandings could be eliminated from aircraft operations. But, considering aviation’s complex environment and the range of aspects related to language proficiency, a number of problems still exist. Aviation’s history chapters contain a series of accidents and incidents as result of bad communication.

For me, after researching extensively, I’ve realised the complexity associated with the issue. Depending on which standpoint one adopts, language proficiency in aviation can be a dissimilar predicament. What became clearer to me is that attitudes, perceptions and tactics must change if we are to resolve air-travel communications. Training and testing are two areas where we have to focus, making both these factors more efficient. Finally, on one hand, non-native English speakers would have to demonstrate their full competence. On the other, although this may be difficult, native speakers must undergo a perceptual shift.     

Further Reading: IATA’s matrix showing the ICAO language proficiency requirements

                                Manual on the implementation of ICAO language proficiency requirements

                                RTF COMMUNICATION: The safety role of native English speakers

Author: Nikolas Koukos

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