Robert W. Moorman explores what is being done to teach English to test pilots and air traffic controllers according to ICAO’s language standards.

They still talk about the horrific mid-air collision near New Delhi, India. November 12, 1996: A Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747-100B enroute to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin IL-76, arriving at New Delhi, collided over the village of Charki Dadri, west of the city. All 349 passengers and crew on board both flights were killed, making it the deadliest mid-air collision in which there were no survivors. The Indian government’s Lahoti Commission investigating the crash ruled that the ultimate cause of the collision was the failure of Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907 to follow ATC instructions. Moreover, the report stated the breach in operating procedure was due to the lack of English language skills by the Kazakhstani pilots.

Following the report, the Commission urged the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to develop language proficiency standards and recommendations. In 2000, ICAO formed the Proficiency Requirements in Common English Study Group. PRICESG included pilots, controllers, safety and linguistic experts familiar with the aviation world. ICAO adopted the Study Group’s recommended standards for voice communications between pilots and air traffic controllers in March 2003; the standards became applicable in March 2008.

Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Transport Canada, the Civil Aviation Authority for the United Kingdom and other regulatory agencies worldwide have adopted ICAO standards as regulations.

The standards, in Annexes 1, 6, 10 and 11 to the Chicago Convention, can be viewed in the Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements, Document 9835, in which Chapter 7 covers Language Proficiency Training. Pilots and air traffic controllers have to demonstrate ICAO Operational Level 4 language proficiency to earn a professional operating license or rating. ICAO advises that Level 4 candidates be re-tested every three years.

The FAA’s regulation mandates that all licensed pilots must be able to read, write and speak English. US license holders must be Level 4 qualified. The agency said it has no plans to enhance English language proficiency requirements.

As of January 3, 2013, 167 Member States had provided ICAO information on their implementation status. 81 States indicated compliance with the requirements, while 23 States did not provide implementation plans or statements of compliance. Based on data available to the ICAO integrated Safety Trend Analysis and Reporting System’s (iSTARS) secure portal, “the rate of effective implementation for the protocol questions related to the language provisions is at 67.75%,” ICAO stated.

The rate of effective implementation might seem poor by some metrics. Articles and editorials have been critical of ICAO and Member States for dragging their feet on implementation. But ICAO and its defenders remind us that these standards for radiotelephony communications between pilots and controllers are to be implemented worldwide.

“The mere fact that we have language proficiency requirements and standards is an incredible achievement considering that there are 191 Member States in ICAO, many where English is neither a first nor a second language,” said Nicole Barrette-Sabourin, Technical Specialist (Training and Licensing) within the Air Navigation Bureau, ICAO.

ICAO does not mandate English only in its language proficiency standards. The ICAO language provisions in Annex 10 Volume II states, in part, that if the pilot and the controller do not share a common language, then the default language is English. However, pilots can request that the radiotelephony communication be conducted in English.

Controversy This English default provision has generated controversy within the industry, in part, because English was deemed the language of aviation many years ago. Pilots and safety experts stress that having one standard removes confusion and is safer. Others favor ICAO’s approach as reasonable and workable, logistically and politically. Most Member States would have rejected an English-only standard outright, according to one person who helped develop the PRICESG recommendations for ICAO.

“We wouldn’t have any standards today if ICAO pushed an English-only provision,” said one observer.

Nevertheless, safety experts said there are several problems with the present regulations that mirror the ICAO language standards. “When you have multiple languages in use, the situational awareness of the crews is degraded,” said Capt. John Cox, President and CEO of Safety Operating Systems and former airline pilot. “The ICAO requirements are a good place to start, but it is not an all-inclusive remedy.”

Cox added: “That said, I am aware of numerous incidents where you needed a better comprehension than ICAO Level 4 guarantees. It becomes problematic when the controllers or pilots are not using ICAO specific terminology.”

“It is essential that pilots are at all times fully aware of the situation in the ATC environment, and this is impossible if communications are being conducted between other aircraft and the ground station in an incomprehensible language,” said retired United Airlines Captain Rick Valdes, who is the former representative of the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) to the ICAO PRICESG.

IFALPA released the following position regarding language proficiency: “It is IFALPA’s opinion that there should be a single language used for all international commercial air transport operations. This language should be English.”

Having one language standard for pilots and air traffic controllers is only part of the issue. “The context issues are not being addressed to the level they should be,” said Cox. “Look at the Avianca accident. That is the poster child” for not understanding the context of the words communicated between the pilots and controllers, he said.

Avianca Flight 52, a Boeing 707-321B, crashed Thursday, Jan 25, 1990 into the small town of Cove Neck, Long Island, NY after running out of fuel, according to the National Transportation Safety Board Accident Report (NTSB). 65 of the 149 passengers on board and eight out of the nine crewmembers died. Pilot error was determined as the cause of the accident because the crew failed to declare a fuel emergency. Contributing to the crash was the lack of standardized terminology for pilots and controllers for minimum and emergency fuel loads. The Spanish-speaking flight crew asked for a priority landing, which they believed indicated an emergency. The English-speaking controllers did not interpret that request as an emergency.

Sometimes accident reports don’t tell the whole story. December 20, 1995: American Airlines Flight 965, a Boeing 757-223, on a flight from Miami to Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport in Cali, Colombia, crashed into the mountains during a decent, killing 159 of the 163 passengers on board the flight. The Aeronautica Civil of the Republic of Colombia Santafe de Bogotá blamed the AA flight crew for its failure to adequately plan and execute the approach into Runway 19 and for its lack of situational awareness.

Colombian investigators said the Cali approach controller “followed applicable ICAO and Colombian air traffic rules and did not contribute to the cause of the accident.” However, an independent investigation later found that the Colombian controller’s lack of English was a factor in the crash.

Enhanced Training Should language training for professional commercial pilots, cabin crew and air traffic controllers be enhanced? “The answer is, of course, yes, but it has to be integrated training and an essential part of recurrent training by commercial airlines,” said Terence Gerighty, vice president of the International Civil Aviation English Association. “The logistics of this often force pilots onto their own resources, to online courses and the like...”

ICAO appreciates the comments from concerned parties regarding its global standards. “But it’s important to recall that we are responsible for assessing these suggestions from a much wider standpoint than may be considered in the local or even regional air traffic environments from which they arise,” stressed Barrett-Sabourin. “We continue to review all the data and information available concerning our aviation language standards, but in the end, they must remain appropriate and practical with respect to the needs, objectives and capabilities of all ICAO Member States.”

Courses Some schools are enhancing their English language curriculums to better prepare professional pilots and air traffic controllers entering the workforce. Latitude Aviation English Services Ltd. a Plymouth, Devon, UK-based school is moving in a new business direction, teaching Aviation English for ab-initio pilots and air traffic controllers. First Aviation English is a 150-hour blended learning offering specifically geared towards language proficiency for professional training, as opposed to ICAO proficiency training for personnel licensing. The course has an instructor led and an e-learning component. Pilots will also be offered 15 hours of competency-based radiotelephony communications training. A 1-hour, 45-minute computer based test is given before the course to determine language proficiency for English medium professional training.

“We developed these products primarily because the flight training industry and air traffic control industries have expressed a need for preparatory language training to get students ready to get into the classroom,” said Latitude managing director Henry Emery.

Asked how this training differs from ICAO requirements, Emery said: “The ICAO requirements in their current form don’t address the language proficiencies required of ab-initio pilots and controllers in their initial training phase.”

Henry said the ideal student for First Aviation English would be someone with a good secondary level education in math and physics, whose only challenge is that he/she can’t speak English.

Latitude expects to launch the testing portion of the program in early 2014, with the sample curriculum available shortly thereafter.

Pan Am International Flight Academy offers English testing and training programs for novices beginning their aviation careers or to veterans needing to hone their communications skills, or to qualify for ICAO Level 4 proficiency. Pan Am offers basic English from beginner to intermediate, as well as aviation English from ICAO Level 2-5. Aviation English is aligned to ICAO 9835 guidelines and students are given an ICAO certification exam and official certificate when they obtain Level 4 proficiency. Pan Am offers English instruction to both individuals and groups. SLC (Specialist Language Courses) offers English for Aviation training programs in the UK, US and Malta. SLC also offers cross- cultural communications courses, which are particularly helpful to pilots, air traffic controllers and others in the aviation industry.

RMIT English Worldwide, the independent language center for RMIT University in Australia, provides pilots and air traffic controllers plain English programs that, it says, moves beyond ICAO Level 4 standards. RMIT offers a suite of Aviation English testing and training programs.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University provides an Aviation English class to students enrolled in the Embry-Riddle Language Institute, which has the dual mission of preparing students for academic classes in the University and for their flight classes at Embry-Riddle. ERAU has always required their ESL instructors to have at least a master's degree in TESL or Applied Linguistics, in accordance with ICAO guidance. The aviation English classes have always used a content-based approach to teaching aviation English. At times, ERAU provides Aviation English programs to the industry on an as-needed basis.

Often, students are sufficiently trained in English as part of their regular secondary education by the time they enter flight school.

Lufthansa Flight Training (LFT) does not provide extra English training for cockpit crews. “Cockpit trainees are selected very carefully and this holds also true for their language skills,” said LFT spokesperson Petra Morfeld. LFT does offer voluntary, company-paid English seminars for cabin crew. As English is a prerequisite for flight attendants, the seminar concentrates on language relevant for their work onboard the aircraft.

Best Practice One concern of ICAO and linguists is that the training and testing industry is unregulated. No best practices group exists presently to regulate the industry. To help, ICAO’s English Language Test Service launched a voluntary program in October 2012 to evaluate the test provider’s exam to see if it meets the best practices outlined in the ICAO Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (Doc. 9835). ICAO charges a fee for the evaluation.

In addition, ICAO, in conjunction with the International Civil Aviation English Association (ICAEA), is offering around 52 rated special language samples as a training aid. The samples can be obtained on the ICAO website. The training aid, in effect, replaces the CD of rated samples issued in 2006.

While the standards have been set, ICAO is first to admit that more work needs to be done. “One of the challenges Member States face is the lack of language training and testing expertise,” said Barrett-Sabourin. “We need to build that up more. We’ve started, but still have a long way to go.”

Some linguists are concerned that the language and testing industry do not consider the complexities involved in providing English language courses and testing.

“Language learning is a long term effort,” said Elizabeth Mathews, a veteran linguistics consultant to ICAO and other organizations. “The industry still wishes for an easy one-size fits all solution,” she said. Mathews is the former director of Embry-Riddle Language Institute.

ICAO calls for plain language proficiency and that instruction needs to be content based, communicative, interactive and on target.

“People [training and testing organizations] slap the term content based on their approach to learning without really understanding what it means,” she added.

It is a subject on which Mathews feels strongly. “The biggest barrier to the global [aviation] industry achieving full compliance with ICAO’s language proficiency requirements is that there is not enough non-commercial activity.”

Meaning, “when you have purely commercial activity in an unregulated environment, it presents a threat to the quality and safety” of English training, said Mathews.

Mathews cites Brazil as one ICAO Member State that is leading in the development of workable programs for teaching aviation English. In remarks to an aviation English conference in Brasilia in November 2012, Carlos Eduardo Magalhães da Silveira Pellegrino, the director of Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) said the country is committed to adhering to ICAO recommendations for “Best Practices” in aviation English training and testing. The country would put people with a Masters or PhD in TESL/Applied Linguistics in charge of implementing the testing and training programs. Brazil is in compliance with ICAO’s language standards and recommendations. It will be years before all Member States comply with ICAO’s language standards. And it appears unlikely that an English-only standard will ever be adopted worldwide. Yet, these States and those countries not associated with the technical body face another daunting, language related challenge: what will be the standards for language exchanged in data link operations? A phraseology system for the exchange of data has been developed. But there is also the issue of free text to consider.

“The standards we have now strictly address listening and understanding. We haven’t yet addressed writing and reading,” said Barrett-Sabourin.