English Language Proficiency Requirements
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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).
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:
ICAO Language Proficiency Rating Scale
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.
Note: Commission Regulation (EU) 2015/340 states that the validity of the language proficiency endorsement for expert level (level six) is nine years from the date of assessment, for the English language. This provision is applicable for air traffic controllers in the EU member states.
Accidents and Incidents
The following events include "Language Clarity" as a contributory factor:
- 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.)
- 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.)
- B742 / B741, Tenerife Canary Islands Spain, 1977 (On 27 March 1977, a KLM Boeing 747-200 began its low visibility take-off at Tenerife without requesting or receiving take-off clearance and a collision with a Boeing 747-100 backtracking the same runway subsequently occurred. Both aircraft were destroyed by the impact and consequential fire and 583 people died. The Investigation attributed the crash primarily to the actions and inactions of the KLM Captain, who was the Operator's Chief Flying Instructor. Safety Recommendations made emphasised the importance of standard phraseology in all normal radio communications and avoidance of the phrase "take-off" in ATC Departure Clearances.)
- Vehicle / 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.)
- 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.)
- Annex 1 - Personnel Licensing (see 1.2.9 Language Proficiency and Appendix A - Language Proficiency Rating Scale);
- Annex 10 - Aeronautical Communications, Volume II;
- Doc 9835 AN/453 - Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements, Second Edition 2010.
- Attachment A to State letter AN 12/44.6-07/68, Resolution A36-11 - Proficiency in the English language for Radiotelephony;
- Attachment B to State letter AN 12/44.6-07/68, Guidelines for the Development of a Language Proficiency Implementation Plan;
- ICAO Language proficiency requirements - Implementation and maintenance recommended check-list, updated on 13/03/2013;
- ICAO Circular 323 Guidelines for Aviation English Training Programmes - guidelines based on the work of the Board and members of the International Civil Aviation English Association (ICAEA);
- For more information on the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements consult the ICAO FSIX website: Implementation of Language Proficiency Requirements.
- Guidance for Examiners and Candidates: Process for the Testing of English Language, Standards Document No. 51, version 1.