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English Language Proficiency Requirements

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Background

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has introduced language proficiency requirements for air traffic controllers and pilots with the objective to improve the level of language proficiency globally and reduce the frequency of communication errors. Historically, insufficient English language proficiency on the part of the flight crew or the controller has contributed to a number of accidents and serious incidents (see Related Articles).

The ICAO Language Proficiency requirements are applicable to both native and non- native English speakers. According to ICAO the burden for improved communications should not be seen as falling solely on non-native speakers - ICAO Doc 9835 states: “Native speakers of English, too, have a fundamentally important role to play in the international efforts to increase communication safety.”

Radio Telephony Communications - ICAO Requirements

The requirements for language proficiency for operational personnel are detailed in ICAO Annex 1 - Personnel Licensing (see Further Reading).

International Standards

In 2003, ICAO set a deadline of March 2008 for English language proficiency at Level 4 and above for all pilots flying international routes and air traffic controllers serving international airports and routes.

For States which were not able to meet the March 2008 deadline, full implementation was to be completed by March 2011.

The proficiency scale ranges from Level 1 to Level 6, with guidelines published for:

  • Pronunciation
  • Fluency
  • Structure
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension
  • Interaction


ICAO Language Proficiency Rating Scale

936x1069

Reassessment Procedures

ICAO require that language skills of pilots and controllers rated at Level 4 are reassessed every three years, Level 5 pilots and controllers - every six years, while at Level 6, no further assessment of English language skills is deemed necessary.

The Level 4 (operational) proficiency is considered as a minimum ‘stepping stone’ to higher levels. The main benefit of high international standards of aviation English is that communications between aircraft crew and controllers are fully understood, particularly when non-standard words and phrases are used. Also, improved language skills could help increasing the situational awareness of flight crews in relation to other aircraft, both in the air and on the ground.

Accidents and Incidents

The following events include "Language Clarity" as a contributory factor:

  • SH33 / MD83, Paris CDG France, 2000 (On the 25th of May, 2000 a UK-operated Shorts SD330 waiting for take-off at Paris CDG in normal visibility at night on a taxiway angled in the take-off direction due to its primary function as an exit for opposite direction landings was given a conditional line up clearance by a controller who had erroneously assumed without checking that it was at the runway threshold. After an aircraft which had just landed had passed, the SD330 began to line up unaware that an MD83 had just been cleared in French to take off from the full length and a collision occurred.)
  • B763, en-route, Northern France, 1998 (On 9 January 1998, a Boeing 767-300 operated by United Airlines experienced an electrical systems malfunction subsequently attributed to arcing in a faulty electrical loom. The crew elected to divert to London Heathrow where emergency evacuation was carried out on a taxiway upon landing.)
  • B735, vicinity London Heathrow UK, 2007 (On 7 June 2007, a Boeing 737-500 operated by LOT Polish Airlines, after daylight takeoff from London Heathrow Airport lost most of the information displayed on Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS). The information in both Electronic Attitude Director Indicator (EADI) and Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicators (EHSI) disappeared because the flight crew inadvertently mismanaged the Flight Management System (FMS). Subsequently the crew had difficulties both in maintaining the aircraft control manually using the mechanical standby instruments and communicating adequately with ATC due to insufficient language proficiency. Although an emergency situation was not declared, the ATC realized the seriousness of the circumstances and provided discrete frequency and a safe return after 27 minutes of flight was achieved.)
  • GLEX/F2TH, vicinity Ibiza Spain, 2012 (On 21 September 2012, two aircraft came into conflict in Class 'A' airspace whilst under radar control at night and loss of separation was resolved by TCAS RA responses by both aircraft. Investigation found that one of the aircraft had passed a procedurally-documented clearance limit without ATC clearance or intervention and that situational awareness of its crew had been diminished by communications with the conflicting aircraft being conducted in Spanish rather than English. A Safety Recommendation on resolving the "persistent problem" of such language issues was made, noting that a similar recommendation had been made 11 years earlier.)
  • PAY4, Perth Western Australia, 2012 (Whilst a light aircraft was lined up for departure, a vehicle made an incorrect assumption about the nature of an ambiguously-phrased ATC TWR instruction and proceeded to enter the same runway. There was no actual risk of conflict since, although LVP were still in force after earlier fog, the TWR controller was able to see the vehicle incursion and therefore withhold the imminent take off clearance. The subsequent Investigation noted that it was imperative that clearance read backs about which there is doubt are not made speculatively in the expectation that they will elicit confirmation or correction.)


Related Articles

Further Reading

ICAO

UK CAA