Aviation English: Challenges & Difficulties in the Coming Decade

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

I’ve shared this story before: When I was a Combat Search and Rescue pilot for the US Air Force, we were directed to move the squadron from southern Iraq to East Africa to support operations in the War against Terror. It was February 2004 and I was piloting an HC-130 southbound over the Red Sea having just flown across the land mass of Saudi Arabia. Enroute to Djibouti Air Base at Flight Level 270, I switched our communications frequency from Jeddah Center to Djibouti Approach.

“Djibouti Approach, this is Fever 34, Flight Level 270, north of you. About 30 minutes out. Request airport information.” Djibouti was not broadcasting Aerodrome Terminal Information Service (ATIS) at the time. The response from Djibouti Approach gave us a clue to the communication breakdown that would continue for the remainder of the flight. “Bonjour, Fevah! Land!” Did that mean “Cleared to land?” The entire crew was perplexed. We were over 100 miles away! And we did not yet have the landing runway information or area traffic.

No one on our crew spoke French, and the Djiboutian controllers didn’t speak English. I recall that on our final approach, the Djiboutians had managed to find a US Marine who spoke French and they tried to use him as a translator. This accomplished little however, because aviation operations was not part of his skillset. Thanks to our skilled navigator and good weather conditions, we landed in Djibouti without incident.

The importance of English for Aviation was impressed upon me. I learned about the worst ground accident in the history of Aviation. Teneriffe, 1977. 583 people lost their lives because of misunderstood English between a pilot and controller. There have been a handful of others since then.

We cannot tolerate the language gap excuse for lost lives. When it comes to English proficiency, the regulatory guidance is relatively new and misunderstood. It’s also misapplied, and not well enforced. We’re trying, but we’re not there yet. While the ICAO Language Proficiency scale and the level 4 standard developed in 2003 represents progress, there is more to be done.

Many airlines or operational entities believe they’ve solved the issue of competency in Aviation English, because they hire only pilots who test at ICAO English level 5 or above. While this practice is smart, it doesn’t mitigate the pilot’s responsibility nor the airline’s responsibility to ensure they remain operationally proficient in English, as with any other maneuver they must remain proficient at.

Many of my colleagues fear that it will take another serious disaster and loss of lives to bring about a more serious approach to this issue. Stricter regulations and enforced compliance will then be imposed upon the industry. I ask, “Why wait for a disaster, that embarrasses your airline, and kills precious loved ones?”

What initiatives are we taking now to impose compliance measures responsibly and avoid a major disaster? What can we do better? If you’re a stakeholder (English teacher, government aviation authority, airline exec, flight instructor or flight school operator, ATC or pilot), I invite your input, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Vietnamese Air Traffic Control English Lacking (2)

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Follow up on the 3 December link to problems with Air Traffic Control in Vietnam.


A Message to Latin American Aviation Entities

Friday, December 5th, 2014

This was my speech at the 2013 WATS conference in Orlando. A recent review of the state of air operations in Latin America reveals my points are more crucial then ever. Safe skies require that governments and airlines invest more in maintaining the English proficiency level of its pilots and controllers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rbp0JudDvkU

Vietnam Confesses ATC English Proficiency Woes

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

This article represents the problems many developing nations are now facing. There are many challenges to bringing the world into compliance with ICAO guidelines for English proficiency. And the stakes so high.


New Aviation English Vocabulary

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

It's official!  The Airbus A320 is now being delivered with "sharklets" to IndiGo Airlines.  

IndiGo A320 with sharklets.  

Sharklets: newly designed wing-tip devices that improve the aircraft’s aerodynamics and significantly cut the airline’s fuel burn and emissions by four per cent on longer sectors.  Sharklets are an option on new-build A320 Family aircraft, and standard on all members of the A320neo Family. They offer the flexibility to A320 Family operators of either adding around 100 nautical miles more range or allowing increased payload capability of up to 450 kilograms. 

Yet another vocabulary term for our non-native English speaking pilots and controllers to add to their list.

Having just revised a "Parts of the Aircraft" lesson for my students, this makes me wonder if I'll be adding another lesson soon to accomodate new vocabulary words.  

What other words are new in the aviation industry that have come along in the last decade?  

Level 4 Is NOT Good Enough

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

In 2004, I was piloting a US Air Force HC-130 southbound over the Red Sea.  Enroute to Djibouti Air Base at Flight Level 270.  We were handed off from Jeddah Center to Djibouti Approach. I radioed; “Djibouti Approach, this is Fever 34, FL270 north of you, about 30 minutes out, request airport information.” The response I received was a jovial and confusing ‘Bonjour, Fevah! Land!’ A nervous laughter erupted among our aircrew as I began seeking clarification. I mean you don’t get a clearance to land from approach control. And from that far away, at that altitude, I don’t think that was the controller’s intent. A US Marine corporal who was stationed there happened to be proficient in French, and although he had nothing to do with air traffic control, he served as an intermediary between the controller we couldn’t understand, and who couldn’t understand me. We also had a skilled navigator, so we landed safely. And I was awaken to the notion that the international aviation arena is facing a big challenge when it comes to the language of the skies. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is a part of the United Nations has declared English as the "lingua franca" for international aviation operations.  Instituted in March 2011 for ICAO member states, pilots and air traffic controllers must be endorsed by their flight governing authority at level 4 or higher on a scale of 6 regarding their level of English.  Controllers and pilots are now focused on "passing" the exam rather than maintaining the proficiency needed to operate safely. 

"New methods to switch from passing the mandatory test results to actual training must be taken to ensure maintaining safety standards and situational awareness", emphasize experts from Baltic Aviation Academy.  I couldn't agree more. 

Aviation English e-learning programs such as Climb Level 4 help develop competency in the ICAO's main areas of assessment: pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and interactions.   A license to use such software gives the trainee access to a vast database of aviation related English language learning activities.  I believe significant value is added to this license when it is used in conjunction with regular live sessions with a qualified teacher of English for Aviation. 

You've heard the mantra, "A good pilot is always learning."  Nowhere was this philosophy more respected than in the United States Air Force.  My pilot training in the Air Force never stopped.  After getting my wings, it was on to weapon system qualification in the C-130.  Then on to mission specific qualification.  After finally finishing the 2 year program to prepare for a combat assignment, the training continues, even in the theatre of operations.

Aircraft commanders (PICs) and copilots are constantly paired with instructors and evaluators on their missions, in order to get "checked out" on various maneuvers.  As an HC/MC-130 pilot this could be common instrument work such as a PAR and an ASR once every 30 to 60 days.  Or it could be a tactical maneuver such as a short field landing every 60 days, or an airdrop.  The most frequent was night low level navigation on night vision goggles, which had to be accomplished once a month under the supervision of an instructor pilot.  

My point is, given that communication is so critical to aviation safety, a pilot's proficiency in the language used to communicate is critical. We know that language deteriorates if it is not used regularly.  Additionally ICAO recommends continuous language development and assessment.  Non-native English speaking pilots and controllers need more than just an exam to pass every 3 to 5 years.  They need regular "live sessions" to maintain proficiency, and especially the confidence to say what must be said in non-routine situations.

Lives are at stake.  The ICAO level 4 requirement is a necessity, but we cannot support pilots being like students in high school, who just study to pass a test, and then quickly forget what was learned. Which pilot do you want in command of your next international flight: One that was able to pass the TEA and achieve level 4?… or one who has confidence in their communication abilities, because they routinely practice and maintain their English?  Which pilot will communicate more proficiently and professionally in an emergency situation?   

Photo Brief: The World’s Safest & Most Dangerous Airlines

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

The Huffington Post recently released a photo brief of the world's 10 most dangerous, and the 10 safest airlines.  Check it out!  

It would be interesting to compare pilot CV's at these carriers, and note which ones ensure their pilots are most proficient in English.

Communication: a Critical Skill in Aviation Operations

Monday, January 7th, 2013

I confess, in my spare time I like to read ICAO publications like Circular 323-AN/185, which provides guidance to aviation entities that need the services of an aviation English trainer.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the publication, which emphasized how critical clear, concise communication is in aviation operations.  

From pg 28: The role of communication in safety, particularly between air traffic controllers and pilots, is critical. Just how critical is apparent from research conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): “NASA researchers analyzed the causes of jet transport accidents and incidents between 1968 and 1976 and concluded that pilot error was more likely to reflect failures in team communication and coordination than deficiencies in technical proficiency.

Human factors issues related to interpersonal communication have been implicated in approximately 70% to 80% of all accidents over the past 20 years. Correspondingly, over 70% of the first 28,000 reports made to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (which allows pilots to confidentially report aviation incidents) were found to be related to communication problems.” (see Sexton & Helmreich in Appendix A, Section A7). 


In my opinion, being current and qualified to fly internationally is about more than a level 4 OACI certification.  Lives are at stake, and just as pilots and controllers must be assessed monthly, and quarterly for many aspects of their job (PAR approaches, holding, max weight takeoffs, etc) so should communication in our lingua franca be regularly and more frequently assessed.  

Brief Analysis of 2012 LatAm Aviation

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

From The Huffington Post's blogger Christine Negroni:

Another area where the tree is growing and branches are thick with fruit is Latin America. The Star Alliance is ready to pick some of it, too having added Panama's Copa and Colombia's Avianca

American Airlines claims to own the region with more flights to more destinations, but there's more than a caffeine buzz jazzing the marketplace, as Joseph Mohan, a Copa veep explained when we met this summer in Panama City.

"There's been a decoupling of the economic survival of Latin America from the United States," he explained. "Latin America has grown organically, it's grown within itself." In the past it was always a question of which U.S.-based company would play a role in regional development, Joe explains, but now "there is much more intra-Latin American commerce," with a consequent boom in the continent's aviation industry.


Like I said yesterday, it's a bright outlook for Latin American aviation in 2013!  For the full article, go here: Flying Lessons from 2012

A Bright Future for Latin American Aviation

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

While the aviation industry struggles elsewhere around the world, there's an optimistic and promising outlook for the aviation industry in Latin America.  

New air carriers are cropping up all over Central and South America.  Virtually every major carrier in the world has plans to increase the number of flights to Latin America in 2013.  Existing cargo haulers and passenger airlines in the region are buying new airplanes as fast as Boeing and Airbus and produce them!  

Can aviation training programs and maintenance programs rise to the challenge?  That remains to be seen.  One of the biggest challenges will be in the area of operational communications.  Not only must Spanish speaking pilots meet ICAO level 4 requirements to fly internationally, but locally based controllers must also, as they direct more aircraft operated by internationally based crews.  

However, it goes beyond just meeting standards.  Pilots and controllers must feel comfortable and confident, communicating with one another via the prescribed lingua franca.  

Check out this article on one companies plans for expansion!

Tampa Air Cargo's new A330-200.