The Use of English in Aviation Communication Worldwide

The Use of English in Aviation Communications

An Analysis of Aviation Communications, Air Traffic Phraseology,and English Proficiency for Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers

Today's radio telephony communications in aviation can only occur one-way and one at a time. This system has pros and cons. On the positive side the "party line," as it is often referred to, allows pilots to listen in and have an awareness of other aircraft in the vicinity. On the negative side, if more than one person attempts to talk at the same time (referred to as stepping on someone's transmission), communications will be unintelligible with high pitched feedback interference. When a frequency is busy it may be difficult for pilots or controllers to communicate important information in a timely manner (Morrow, 1998).

Because my research focused on the use of aviation phraseology and English in flight communications, my discovery phase began with a look at the English-only debate, the spread of English as a global language, and the current status of English in aviation. I found the background information on the unofficial but expected status of English in the United States fascinating. I had always assumed by default that English was the official language of both the United Kingdom and the United States. I was not surprised, however to confirm that English is the fastest spreading global language today and its use is virtually unchallenged in business, science & technology.

The use of English is also wide spread in international travel for both maritime and aviation endeavors; however, I was shocked to find out that English usage is not mandated by any global organization as I had previously thought. Much like matters in the U.S., English is the language by default, not by official policy (Crystal, 1997).

English use is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) in the U.S. as pilots and controllers must "be able to read, write, and converse fluently in English." All FAA exams are administered in English. Outside of the U.S., the story changes a bit. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was created during the 1944 Chicago Convention as a branch of the United Nations. As such, it has no regulatory control and is merely an advisory entity (Feldman, 1998).

ICAO recommendations are stated as follows:

Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers are expected to demonstrate knowledge in "the language or languages nationally designated for use in air traffic control and [the] ability to speak in such language or languages without accent or impediment which would adversely affect radio communication...Pending the development and adoption of a more suitable form of speech for universal use in aeronautical radiotelephony communications, the English language should be used as such and should be available, on request from any aircraft all stations on the ground serving designated airports and routes used by international services" (Verhaegen, 2001).

This statement does not address pilot concerns for vast areas of Africa of uncontrolled airspace in which pilots are responsible for their own traffic separation. In many cases pilots may not have a lingua franca in order to properly communicate position and intentions to avoid a mid air collision. General Aviation is wide spread throughout Africa, so this poses substantial difficulties. Pilots in Africa are not mandated by the same regulations as the U.S. At a 1999 meeting of the Chicago chapter of the Ninety-nines (a female flight organization founded by Amelia Earhart) a former bush pilot and instructor who flew in Africa for 30 years relayed stories of pilots calling home from a party to tell someone to park the Jeep at the end of the air strip so they could see where to land in the dark. The trip's purpose was to get more beer!

The ambiguity of language policies has led to several fatal accidents, the causes of which have been attributed to poor English language communication. In a later section of this paper, I will highlight a few of the more famous cases to illustrate the extreme nature of the language problem in aviation.

History of Aviation Communications

My project researched the historical and current status of the English language in Air Traffic Control (ATC) flight communications. While English does not have an official status in international flight, its use has been widely implemented. Since English-only in ATC communications is not mandated on a global scale, the lack of standardization and regulation has led to much variation of English proficiency in the air transport industry. In some cases, this lack of proficiency has resulted in fatal accidents which might have been avoided if a common language had been available.

In exploring this topic, I looked at English as a global language in general and in the area of international flight. I will address the historical reasons that English has become the predominant global lingua franca in international communications and in ATC radiotelephony for international flight. The use of a register of aeronautical English with restricted phraseology is detailed and referred to as Airspeak. The proficiency of Airspeak as a subset of English is deemed crucial to clear ATC communications between pilots and controllers; however, the implementation of a global standard of this aeronautical English has not been enforced.

Crystal (1997) provided historical background for many reasons why English has become the predominant global language over the past 50 years. Crystal noted that while English does not have the largest number of speakers, it is the power of those speakers which has caused English to be the unchallenged lingua franca for business, science, and technology. Chapter four of English as a Global Language focused on areas such as international relations, the media, international travel, education, and communications. Crystal described registers such as "Seaspeak" for maritime use and limited phraseology for Air Traffic Control called "Airspeak."

Varantola (1989) offered a comparison of the use of purpose-built languages in maritime and aviation navigation. She also detailed the historical use of English and special varieties of English. Although written over ten years ago, I refer to this article because of its contrast of Airspeak to Seaspeak as well as the thorough discussion of natural vs. restricted code languages. I disagree with Varantola's position that non-native English speakers might communicate better with restricted phraseology than native speakers because they would be less likely to use extraneous wording. I believe non-native English speakers may use less words outside of the code of Airspeak or Seaspeak due to a lack of proficiency which could diminish clear communications in the long run. I agree with Varantola that context is necessary for clear message understanding.
Role of Regulatory and Advisory Organizations.

The lack of an international regulatory agency with power to enforce standards for an official common language and English proficiency for pilots and controllers poses great concern for uniformity of procedures within the aviation community. Crystal (1997), noted the formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the 1994 Chicago Convention as an advisory rather than regulatory organization. English was recommended (but not mandated) by ICAO for communication between pilots and controllers who speak different languages. Crystal also noted differences in standards for phraseology between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and ICAO.

Morrow and Rodvold (1998) provided an exceptionally detailed account of the current status of communication in ATC operations. Research data in the literature involved NASA Air Safety Reporting System (ASRS) forms, direct observation of routine operations of randomly sampled ATC communications, full-mission simulation studies, and modeling communication processes. The NASA forms were highlighted as a way for pilots to anonymously report about potential problems in the air traffic system. These forms also provide a way for pilots to confess system deviations and avoid reprimand, unless the pilot knowingly violated Federal Aviation Regulations. Factors in ATC communications were categorized as perceptual, linguistic, and collaborative. ATC facility communications were compared and contrasted to controller-to-pilot interactions. Messages could be misinterpreted due to the expectations, level of fatigue, experience, and age of the receiver.

Feldman (1998) lamented the inability of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to enforce mandatory English communications. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA) lobbied for a stripped down aeronautical English to become the standard for communications. IFALPA and IATA have had English language training programs for pilots and controllers. English is mandated on a country by country basis. Russia does not mandate English only, but China, Germany, and France do. Africa was noted as a big concern as the continent is multilingual and much of the vast area is in uncontrolled airspace where pilots are responsible for communicating to each other regarding position and intentions in order to avoid mid-air collisions. In countries where English-only is mandated, the policy is often not enforced allowing pilots and controllers to converse in another more familiar language. This multilingual communication eliminates the ability of other pilots in the airspace to listen in and gain situational awareness.

Nordwall (1997) shared the position of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) which encouraged Congress to mandate English proficiency for pilots and ATC personnel. Nordwall stated, "there are no ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] standards of language proficiency for pilots or controllers and no FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] benchmarks to measure the adequacy of English to fly in U.S. airspace."

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) secretariat, Verhaegen (2001) stated Annex 1, the Procedures for Air Navigation Services - Rules for Air Traffic Services (PANS-RAC), and Annex 10. The policies are respectively regarding ability to communicate in the local language(s), knowledge of radiotelephony procedures and phraseology, and the provision of English for universal use in aeronautical radiotelephony communications. ICAO's Trainair language training program is noted as is the 1980 ICAO publication, Aviation English for Air Traffic Controllers. Collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Multi-Agency Air Traffic Services Procedures Coordination Group (MAPCOG) anticipated by ICAO to improve the use of standard phraseology internationally. Another task force spearheaded by the ICAO Secretariat is the Proficiency Requirements in Common English (PRICE) Study Group. Verhaegen further suggested that standards are needed in minimum English proficiency and aeronautical phraseology.
Noble (1997) highlighted the growing problem of a lack of English proficiency amongst Japanese flight students who seek training and certification in the U.S. He posits that a majority of flight training can occur in uncontrolled airspace; therefore, Japanese student pilots may train and receive private pilot certification without experiencing rapid English speech communications from ATC controllers. Without this exposure, pilots could reach "cognitive overload" and miscommunicate in a heavy traffic environments. Noble showed concern for the lack of a standardized test for English proficiency in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification of pilots, noting that in order to determine English proficiency, an FAA examiner is only responsible for having a student pilot read and show understanding of the English language. It is recommended for the examiner to have the student read printed text such as in a magazine or newspaper and display comprehension by paraphrasing the article. This exercise is not deemed a good indicator of a student pilot's ability to understand spoken communications in an ATC environment. Noble proposed a computerized flight simulator capable of automated measurement of language skills to address this concern.

Communication and Language Related Accidents

In order to substantiate the need for improved global communications, accidents involving language miscommunications are cited. The most frequently mentioned accidents occurred in Tenerife in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, Cove Neck, New York enroute to JFK on January 25, 1991, and the mountainous terrain near Cali, Colombia on December 20, 1995. In each of these instances, a better understanding of the English language could have possibly prevented the accident.

Crystal (1997) posed the need for bilingual ATC communications as it relates to cultural identity in Montreal and accident prevention in the fatal aviation accidents at Tenerife and Cali, Columbia.

Varantola (1989, pp. 180-1) related the 1977 Tenerife aviation accident and provided a brief transcript of the misleading communications just prior to the collision of a KLM 747 on take off into a Pan Am 747 which had not yet cleared the active runway. The transcript noted the KLM pilot as stating "We are now ready on (or at) takeoff." Other literature supports the "ready at takeoff" quote and also states that in Dutch syntax "at takeoff" would be the same thing as "taking off." Most native speakers of English would not know this distinction. It is understandable that the first language Spanish speaking controller was equally unaware of the meaning of the Dutch KLM pilot. In the same article, she mentioned a maritime accident involving two ships in Swedish waters. VHF communications of the incident were in contrast to what one of the ship's crew claimed to have heard and said when relaying the incident in court. In both accidents, seemingly minor words might have played a large role in miscommunications.
Feldman (1998) boasted the Chinese government's mandate of English-only in flight, and yet the Urumqi crash of a China Northern MD-82 was unofficially reported as due to misunderstanding of an English warning emanating from the Ground Position Warning System (GPWS).
Nordwall (1997) detailed the Cali, Colombia crash as an example of a controller's inability to communicate effectively in English. W. Frank Price, manager of air traffic services international staff for the FAA said, "Had he [the controller] been able to do so [communicate the crew's position in English], it could have contributed to the crew's situational awareness - a factor that might have prevented the accident." Avianca at JFK, another language related accident detailed a crew's inability to use the proper terminology to declare a fuel emergency. The copilot told ATC that he was running out of fuel, but never used the words "minimum fuel" or "emergency."

Verhaegen (2001) noted the 1996 crash near Dehli, India which involved a Boeing 747 and an Ilyushin Il-76 was due to miscommunication amongst two foreign flight crews. Neither crew was reported to have a high level of proficiency in English. The accident inquiry revealed that there was confusion about the level to which the Il-76 was cleared to descend.

In response to these language related accidents, Mathews (2001) strongly stated, "Within aviation, English has become firmly entrenched as the defacto common language of international communication. It is also the only practical choice at this time for designation as the official first language of international radiotelephony communications." She explained her impressions of linguistics and language and how each affects communication and stressed the importance of context and culture in the understanding of language. In this vein, she defended natural languages over artificial languages due to the complexity of language. She expressed, "Poor communication, or lack of a mutual proficiency in a shared common language can be a causal factor in an accident."

Research in Aviation Communications

Phillips (1991)
Phillips explored how official phraseology of air traffic communications differed from natural English. He studied the official phraseology of the Civil Aviation Authority Radiotelephony manual in addition to research from the Ecole Nationale de l'Aviation Civile, Toulouse, France. The emergent hypothesis of the study was the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) phraseology has a special purpose sub-grammar. The corpus consisted of 541 phraseological utterances and 36 structural modifications. Philips taxonomized and coded the phraseology and compared the sub-grammar to natural English. He determined that aviation phraseology has two sub systems: 1) English as a sub-grammar and 2) a context and domain dependent speech community.

The corpus samples were limited to European standards and thus do not generalize to air traffic communications conducted in the United States. Although ICAO proposes to be an international flight organization, it does not have any regulatory power as an arm of the United Nations; therefore, international communications standards are only advisory in nature. Standardization and usage of official phraseology was determined via regulatory aeronautical manuals. Actual practical usage was not evaluated and as such the applications for real-world communications were not addressed. The study did highlight the need for a global topography or taxonomy of aviation phraseology in order to better understand flight communications.

Prinzo & Britton (1993)
This study analyzed 43 reports regarding the literature to date for pilot and controller communications. The make up of the reports was 45% survey data, 41% field studies, and 14% laboratory studies. The review addressed three major questions: 1) What is known about ATC/pilot voice communications and the issues pertaining to miscommunications? 2) What approaches have been used to study miscommunications? and 3) What research needs to be performed so that real solutions can be offered to the aviation community? The emergent hypothesis was that miscommunications occur more often when air traffic controllers experienced overload due to heavy traffic, frequency congestion, and lengthy messages. Data in the studies presented was collected from NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) forms, audiotape analysis, and laboratory studies. The meta analysis compared and contrasted various taxonomies including Kanki & Foushee's speech act coding scheme, Morrow, Rodvold, & Lee's taxonomy of routine vs. non-routine transactions, and Cardosi & Boole's time components in ATC/pilot verbal communications. The analysis concluded that audio taped communications data bases could be helpful in post-communication analysis and a globally implemented taxonomy for aviation speech acts should be established to report findings in a uniform and systematic way for better comparison between studies.
Prinzo and Britton collaborated on the report; however, their analysis and synthesis methods were not described. The study was descriptive in nature and did not contribute any original research, as it only provided a synthesis of existing literature. It did give an accurate picture of the research that had been conducted previous to the date of publication regarding pilot/controller voice communications. No previous study had offered such a comprehensive cross-study analysis.

Morrow, Rodvold & Lee (1994)
The study used Clark & Schaefer's collaborative scheme (1987) as a framework to organize what they termed "routine" and "non-routine" communications. The context and participants consisted of a corpus of recordings of pilot and controller communications gathered Three regions of the United States. Communication transactions were gathered from West Coast, Midwest, and Southeast, level 5 Terminal Radar Control (TRACON) centers. The emergent hypotheses was that non-routine transactions often lead to miscommunications. While 42 hours of data were collected, only 12 hours were "randomly selected" for analysis. Of this 12 hours, six were from approach frequencies and six were from departure frequencies. A taxonomy based on the collaborative scheme was used to code the transmissions. Analysis found 163 non-routine transactions with understanding problems and 120 with information problems. It was concluded that non-routine transactions decreased efficiency by focusing on resolving problems rather than allowing for the presentation of new information.

The scope of the study was limited. While three regions of the country were represented, the East Coast was not. I question why the Southeast was selected over the East. The East has some of the busiest air space in the nation including New York City and Washington, D.C. Without representation from this region, the study is not generalizable to the entire U.S. Inter-rater reliability was accounted for by gaining agreement (77% - 91%) on 15 transactions containing 149 speech acts; however, only two raters coded the data. I would have preferred at least three raters if not more. The study did demonstrate the applicability of the collaborative scheme for analysis of Air Traffic Control communications.

Prinzo (1998)
Prinzo analyzed voice communications in a simulated approach control environment to determine if workload effected the performance of air traffic controllers. The study involved 24 full performance level controllers from two terminal radar approach control (TRACON) facilities. Her emergent hypothesis was that controllers under high stress or workload display higher vocal pitch, louder voice volume, and increased rate of speech. Data was collected from both simulations and the field. The simulation environment produced 13,900 transmission consisting of 33,000 communication elements. Field recordings consisted of 1900 transactions and 5,336 communication elements. VERBEX voice recognition software was used for initial transcription of the recordings. The Aviation Topics Speech Acts Taxonomy (ATSAT) was utilized to analyze communication elements. The study found similarities in communication style between simulation and field recordings.

Participants in the study were primarily male with a male:female ratio of 9:1 at TRACON 1 and 10:2 at TRACON 2. Sex of the controllers was not considered as a covariate. There were limitations in the VERBEX voice recognition software, as the system was unable to accommodate non-standard language beyond the restricted phraseology of air traffic control. Natural language was therefore, not accounted for in the study. The study did demonstrate that simulations can provide relatively equivalent environments to real life TRACON situations. Simulators could be utilized for future experimentation and training.

Morrow & Prinzo (1999)
Researchers hoped to gain insight into the presentation of information, specifically looking at the effect of grouping or chunking information on memory capacity. The study hypothesized that "grouped" information would reduce memory load of pilots. "Paid volunteers" consisting of 21 males and 3 females were randomly assigned to "grouping" or "control" groups. Other variables included instructional type and mission sequence for simulation flights. Two days were devoted to the experiment with the first day including pretesting and familiarization training. Pretesting consisted of a demographic questionnaire and the administration of the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scales-Revised sections including Forward Digit Span score and Backward Digit Span score. On the second day, the missions were flown in a simulator which served as the post-test. During these "missions" pilot and controller communications were recorded on audiotape. Voice communications were analyzed by a primary coder who held a private pilot certificate. One of the principal investigators served as a secondary coder. An analysis of variance led to only two significant findings: 1) "grouped" information tended to be read back sequentially: F (1,42) = 4.3, p < 0.5, and 2) "grouping" condition made fewer requests for clarification: F (1,42) = 4.1, p<0.5. It was determined that the hypothesis was generally not supported.

While the pretest may not have contributed to any practice effect, the familiarization training may have done so. The first day's training included 20-25 minutes of listening to air traffic control communications consisting of 70 multi-instruction messages. This in combination with the training mission in the Basic General Aviation Research Simulator (BGARS) may have predisposed participants to the types of responses and simulator actions expected. Extraneous variables, such as age of the pilot participants could have greatly impacted memory. Further studies could explore if longer air traffic control messages overload pilot memory and if so, experiments could be done with different message simplification schemes in a more controlled and systematic environment. While not the intent of the study, it was demonstrated that training of pilots in simulator situations may improve General Aviation pilot communications.

Recommendations for System Improvement

Journal articles give some insight into current thoughts for improving ATC communications. These suggestions include the adoption of standardized instruments for measuring English proficiency, implementation of computer-based data-link communication systems, and implementation of speech recognition systems. Crystal (1997) declared English as the undisputed language of international communications, computers, and the Internet.
Morrow and Rodvold (1998) shared recommendations for improving ATC communications which focused on improving the fidelity of radio systems, refining the measurement of communication performance, and implementing training for ATC controllers much like the Crew Resource Management training provided for flight crews. Data-link communication systems which reduce the amount of ATC controller voice communications by visually transmitting messages via flight computers were posed as another option for improving the clarity of communications . They noted that text messages might initially overload work capacity and timeliness of responses for pilots and controllers, but the system would provide a better record of transmissions.

Clinch (2000) described the Future Air Navigation System (FANS), Communications, Navigation, and Surveillance (CNS) and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). The purpose of the FANS concept is to provide pilot-controller data-linked communications. Rather than wait for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to decide on a data link standard, much of the airline industry has already implemented ACARS to provide aeronautical operational control (AOC) to aircraft. AOC communications involve transmission of routine airplane dispatch and weather information. Air Traffic Services (ATS) are provided by satellite via Inmarsat and SITA, a global telecommunications company. While ACARS is widely in use in air transport, the text only formatted system is not being considered for ICAO standardization. ICAO's Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN) will support Automatic Dependent Surveillance (ADS), Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), and Dynamic Airborne Rerouting Procedures (DARPs). Unlike the text-based constraints of ACARS, ATN will support transmissions in any format. In response to this inflexibility, VHF Digital Link (VDL) avionics have been designed to expand transmission abilities of ACARS to comply with ICAO ATN standards. Future communications may be less restricted by closed systems and rely on Internet Protocol (IP).
Mathews (2001) suggested flight deck and ATC translators as an impractical alternative to language proficiency. Computer data-link systems are posed as another option, but Mathews fails to view the implementation of such infrastructure as a replacement for standardization of English proficiency.

A study was conducted by Churcher, Atwell, & Souter (1997) utilizing speech recognition systems in order to analyze Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications. The purpose of the system was for transcription of key data. Key information areas of messages were categorized as change of altitude, change of pressure settings, change of transponder codes which track individual aircraft, change of pilot's radio frequency, and change of aircraft heading. The model used for language was based on the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA, the U.K. equivalent of the U. S. FAA) Radiotelephony Manual. In addition, 90 minutes of actual ATC transmissions from Leeds Bradford Airport on the approach frequency were transcribed and analyzed. The speech recognizer used for the project was SSI's Phonetic Engine 500. A limitation of the software was the model of American speakers rather than British speakers. Different parameters for lexicon, grammar, and syntax were devised and tested. The experiment utilized six speakers (three male and three female) who recorded 19 sentences with a noise cancelling microphone in both a quiet environment and normal office setting. The findings reported in the article concluded that speech recognition had a long way to go before it could be applicable in an ATC environment.

Implications for World Englishes

Literature has shown (Feldman, 1998; Mathews, 2001; Nordwall, 1997; Varantola, 1989; and Verhaegen, 2001) that air traffic communications often deviate from standard phraseology in emergency situations towards a more conversational style. Since this phenomenon commonly occurs, a proficiency beyond the basic understanding of English which includes familiarity of other varieties of English. I believe there is a need for standards in English language proficiency and pilot and controller education in multiple varieties of English. At a minimum, key words or phrases that may have significantly different meanings in other cultures or local varieties of English should be studied.

In an informal interview (Dyck, 2001) I learned about airline human factors pilot recurrent training regarding awareness of cultural differences potentially encountered in international flight. One such difference, noted by an American Airlines pilot, is the South American interpretation of the term "direct" which means "continue directly on the filed plan of flight" in contrast to the U.S. use of the term which usually infers "flight in a direct line towards a destination." In this example, one word contains an entirely different action and expectation, dependent on cultural orientation.
English for Specific Purposes in Aviation

Aviation phraseology or "Airspeak" is not a natural language. Ragan (2002) refers to Airspeak as "idiosyncratic, predictable, and yet problematic in communicating meaning." Airspeak is very dependent on context and a shared phraseology. Unlike conversational English, Airspeak is often disjunctive and abbreviated. In routine communications, transactions are very predictable as there is a prescribed protocol for pilots and controllers; however, when speakers deviate from standard phraseology, but continue to speak with their own interpretation of aviation terminology, problems in understanding may occur. If Airspeak is truly unambiguous and agreed upon by all parties, this register is preferred to deviations to conversational English.

Sticking only to Airspeak may be easier said than done. Hunter (2002) conveyed, "...aviation phraseology doesn't necessarily follow the linguistic rules we have hard-wired into our brains. `One theory of human language postulates that verbs and nouns fall in certain places in sentences, and that all human languages follow the same basic rules. Aviation phraseology is a technical language concocted by humans, not a language which has evolved over millennia. Clearances don't necessarily follow hard-wired linguistic rules, so we may have to think a few extra seconds to process what we've heard before we respond. We can learn to use invented technical languages, but it takes practice."

If communications are restricted to Airspeak, will there still be confusion? Instances such as the Dutch syntax confusion of "at takeoff" as an active tense at Tenerife may not have been resolved. The use of "go direct" by the Cali, Columbia controller may have been confusing to the American Airlines crew because of different cultural meanings for the phrase. It is important that all conventions of Airspeak are considered and agreed upon by users; however, I question if human error or misinterpretation can be entirely accounted for by a specific purpose language.
Ripley (2002) argued that things such has homophony, punctuation, and intonation could greatly impact communications. Context, shared meaning, and understanding are essential for effective communications. Without proper context, 2-4-0 could refer to either a magnetic heading or a flight level altitude. It is imperative that miscommunications are qualified or repaired to insure the correct interpretation of flight directives.
Possible Need for Multilingualism

In Canada, specifically Quebec, there is a high demand for bilingual controllers. Many air traffic personnel feel that student pilots need to have access to the French language in an emergency situation. An instance was noted where a bilingual U.S. controller used French to accommodate a student pilot in distress. In Russia, sometimes translators are needed in the cockpit in order to communicate in English. China had hoped to implement an English-only policy by January, 1999, but has met with resistance from both civil and military aviators. Intensive English courses for pilots and air traffic controllers have been instituted, but in many cases, these efforts may not be enough to insure sufficient English language proficiency (Feldman, 1998).

O'Brien (2002) stated that Charles de Gaulle International airport in Paris tried to maintain English-only for air traffic communications, but was unable to sustain the policy for more than a month. French was reverted to for more informal or conversational interactions amongst flight crew and other aviation personnel.

ICAO Initiatives

In 1998 at the 32nd ICAO Assembly, Resolution A 32-16 proposed a minimum level of English proficiency for radio telephony communications. ICAO's Proficiency Requirements in Common English (PRICE) Sub Group plans to submit revised language related policies by November 2003 for implementation by 2008. Amendments will be made to Annexes 1, 6, and 10 which deal with language policy. Linguist, Elizabeth Mathews was hired to oversee the PRICE Sub Group and propose standards which are fair, reproducible, and trainable. Testing metrics for Aviation English are also proposed.

ICAO's proposed standardized phraseology is currently in conflict with the adopted phraseology of the FAA. The U.S. will need to change some current conventions in order to comply with international standards. Since U.S. Airlines lead the aviation industry, this may be an uphill battle; however standardization is necessary. At the 2002 Women in Aviation International Communications Seminar, Enid Casper, representative from the Dallas Flight Standards District Office quoted the number non-native speaking pilots in the U.S. as nearly 86,000. Without universal Aviation English standards, communications within and outside of the U.S. are open to misinterpretation.


This project highlighted the need for further research in the area of Aviation English in order to help the aviation industry reach a consensus regarding communication and language policies. The air transport industry is at a crossroads where technology could play a vital role in the future management of the air traffic system, flight communications, and global navigation. If this technology is not wisely implemented and standardized, the air transport industry may face increased communications obstacles rather than enhanced global understanding. It is important to consider the matter globally when proposing and implementing communication and language polices. Industry leaders and policy makers should be sensitive to the needs of all members of the international aviation community.

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