As this is what I work with, I decided to give you a small glimpse into the world of English communication in Civil Aviation.
English is the official language of international aviation communication. In 2004, in response to a series of incidents and accidents in which miscommunication had been a contributing factor, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established a set of stricter language proficiency requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers, including a rating scale and guidelines for a language proficiency exam to attest the level of English of these professionals. By 2008, the exam became an official requirement and pilots and air traffic controllers operating international routes had to obtain a certificate to attest their proficiency in Aviation English. ICAO doesn’t provide a standard exam; instead, every country’s civil aviation authority is responsible for attesting the language proficiency of their pilots and air traffic controllers, either by creating their own exam, as it has been done in Brazil, or by accrediting an exam from a language institute or authority.
In addition to establishing language proficiency requirements, ICAO also determined that phraseology, a set of guidelines containing a restricted vocabulary for routine instruction and request exchanges between pilots and controllers, should always be used; the exception being the use of “plain English” for abnormal or emergency situations. (For more information, see ICAO Doc 9835)
Despite all these requirements and guidelines, miscommunication still happens, many times leading to incidents or accidents. Among the reasons for that are: the misuse of phraseology during routine communication; a preference for using plain English during routine communication; and the lack of English language proficiency. There are many examples of instances, incidents and accidents where language played a major role, including the world’s worst civil aviation disaster: the crash of two Boeing 747 in Tenerife resulting in the death of 583 people after miscommunications between controller and pilots. Now, let’s take a look at some more recent examples of that.
The following is a communication between a Chinese pilot (Air China flight 981) and an air traffic controller at JFK airport in New York. The flight had landed and was receiving instructions to taxi. This happened in 2006.
The first indication that the pilot doesn’t understand a lot of English is when he mistakes “Mike Alpha” for “November” in the exchange:
ATCO: “Air China 981, make the right turn here at Juliette, join Alpha, hold short of Mike Alpha.”
Pilot: “Right on Juliette, hold sh… taxi Alpha hold November, now can we…ahh… can we taxi now?”
The controller repeats the instructions and once again the pilot doesn’t understand it. After that, the controller asks, “Air China 981, have they cleared you into the ramp?” The pilot misunderstands and assumes they have authorization to enter the ramp area. This is clear when he answers, “Roger, ramp to the… ramp, Air China 981.” What follows is an exchange full of misunderstandings. Most people would put the blame for the miscommunication solely on the pilot. However, both pilot and controller are to blame in this case. On one hand, there is the lack of English knowledge by the pilot. He does not understand that the controller is asking him whether he received authorization to enter the ramp, a designated area where aircraft can park, refuel, and load/unload passengers, and taxi to the gate (at JFK, one tower is responsible for giving taxiing instructions and another is in charge of authorizing entrance to the ramp and assigning gates). On the other hand, there is lack of awareness and understanding of the pilot’s limitations by the air traffic controller. Aware of the pilot’s limited English knowledge, he could have simplified his speech to make it easier for the pilot to understand, as ICAO recommends the use of simple structures (See ICAO Doc 9835).
A recent incident showcased the level of English of Brazilian pilots. A TAM flight had a gear malfunction while landing at JFK airport in New York in September, 2012. The pilots twice aborted the landing, finally landing safely on the third try.
This communication shows two different aspects of Aviation English: (1) standard phraseology used for navigational instructions and (2) plain English used to explain a malfunction. This is an example of when standard phraseology is not enough and the pilots have to rely on their knowledge of plain English and Aviation vocabulary to explain what their problem is to the controller. During the exchanges where standard phraseology was used, as in heading and landing instructions, the pilots didn’t have problems communicating with the controller. However, when talking about the problem with the aircraft, the controller had a hard time understanding what the pilot was saying, several times asking her to repeat the information and repeating information when realizing the pilots hadn’t understood the message. In the beginning of the communication the pilot declares an emergency (PAN PAN PAN) and says they have a malfunction. There are a number of procedures to follow when a pilot declares an emergency. In this case, the controller didn’t realize the pilot officially declared an emergency because of her pronunciation. Later on, another controller verifies if they are declaring an emergency and the pilot then states “negative emergency”. As you can see, the pilots hesitate a lot and have a hard time explaining what is happening to the controller. The pilot confuses the words “nose gear” and “landing gear” and doesn’t immediately understand the controller is saying the nose gear is in the wrong position. In this case, differentiating nose and landing gear is important because nose gear is the “front wheel” of the aircraft and landing gear can be interpreted as the “back wheels” of the aircraft. Furthermore, after going around, both pilots struggle to explain to the controller what was happening and what procedures needed to be performed. The controller is aware of their limitations and helps them. After doing the procedures to check and correct the malfunction, the pilots were finally able to land safely on runway 31L.
I hope this has given you a better understanding of international aviation communication.
To know what a day at JFK sounds like, watch: JFK ATC Bad Day at the Office (the first plane is TAM 8081) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyO-bWGxWBU.