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Multi-language ATC Operations

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Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
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Introduction

The default language of international aviation worldwide is English, although local languages are used concurrently for RTF communications, even in busy and complex operational environments. Sometimes this practice is ‘justified’ on a local level by the reasoning that it avoids possible misunderstandings when addressing local specifics and facilitates the speed of the communication process with the native flight crews. However, controllers using both English for communication with international flights and the country’s native language for communication with the local crews potentially prevent both crews from achieving the desired level of situational awareness with respect of the other traffic.

Description

In the context of the operational environment, the use of the English standard phraseology reduces the risk that a message will be misunderstood.

Use of Standard Aviation English phraseology is a major contribution to the reduction of ambiguity in aircraft/ATC communications and supports a common understanding among speakers of both:

  • Different native languages and
  • The same native language, but who use, pronounce or understand words differently.

English standard phraseology should be used in all communications (transmissions and receptions). When used properly, the information and instructions transmitted are of vital importance in assisting in the safe and expeditious operation of aircraft. However native language is still used locally, exceptionally for particular information or to describe unusual situations, or in case of an emergency. Incidents and accidents have occurred in which a contributing factor has been the poor situational awareness caused by the use of different languages on a single ATC frequency.

This subject was raised at the 40th Session of the Safety Regulation Commission (SRC)[1] by the UK SRC representative, introducing a Working Paper SRC40.09 on the “Use of more than one language at airports in EUROCONTROL Member States” with the aim of drawing attention to this significant aviation safety issue and to seek support for the launch of an SRC-led initiative to standardise language use at major international airports within EUROCONTROL Member States. At SRC41 an update on the results of the consultation on the subject was provided. SRC tasked a coordination group to continue discussions on the issue of the use of more than one language at airports in EUROCONTROL Member States.

As result, the following Recommendation was presented to the members of the provisional council (4-5 December 2012): States to progress their considerations regarding extending the use of English at airports and relevant surrounding airspace sectors with international traffic of more than 50.000 commercial IFR movements a year, with a view to improving safety in this field.

Accidents and Incidents involving use of different languages

The following events include "Multiple Language use on Frequency" 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.)
  • 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.)


Editor's Note:

  1. ^ (SRC) undertakes EUROCONTROL's work in the field of ATM safety regulation across the whole ECAC area and is composed of senior executives from within organisations responsible for ATM safety regulation at national level. SRC is responsible for the development and uniform implementation of harmonised safety regulatory objectives and requirements for the European Air Traffic Management (ATM) and ensuring their effectiveness through measurement of safety performance.

Further Reading