International air travel is an everyday area of activity where misinterpreting, mistranslating and misunderstanding of language can have serious or tragic consequences.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has finally fixed 11 March 2011 as the date by which international communications between air traffic controllers and foreign aircraft must take place in English, especially in landing and take-off operations. [See here.]
Although it is difficult to find online documented examples of incidents where poor English communication between the control tower and pilots has caused danger or contributed to plane crashes, here are two cases for consideration.
On 25 January 1990, AVIANCA Flight 052 from Medellín (Colombia) to New York crashed near busy JFK Airport after circling in a long queue of aircraft during very bad weather conditions and, finally, running out of fuel. 73 passengers and crew were killed and many of the 85 surviving passengers were seriously injured. Ironically, the survivors owe their lives to the fact that at the crash site there was no outbreak of fire because there was no fuel left to ignite.
According to Wikipedia’s account of the accident and the subsequent inquiry, “The NTSB’s report on the accident determined the cause as pilot error due to the crew never declaring a fuel emergency to air traffic control as per International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines.” However, in the 6th part of a documentary re-enactment (in English) of the fatal journey, it is suggested that, in addition to the very bad weather conditions and the queue of circling aircraft with which traffic controllers had to deal, one of the contributing factors was that the Colombian First Officer used the English word ‘priority’ instead of ‘emergency’ to New York Air Traffic Controllers.
A second example, in which a Russian traffic controller’s English was clearly inadequate in an extended emergency, comes from the Moscow Times of 11 November 2010. This report on new ICAO regulations on the use of English contains an online link to an 8-minute “You Tube” audio recording of the embarrassing misunderstandings by the Russian air traffic controller of a Mayday call from a Swiss pilot following a “bird strike” on takeoff. (The initial crucial word not understood was “Mayday”.)
The article is written by Oksana Gavshina, Anastasia Dagaveya, and Vladimir Filonov.
English Language to Rule Skies
“Pilots and air traffic controllers at airports serving international flights will only speak English starting in March.
Russian pilots and air traffic controllers at the country’s international airports will be required to conduct all conversations in English starting in March 2011, and the practice could eventually be extended to domestic flights.
English could become the only language for communication between traffic controllers and pilots for non-military Russian flights, said Alexander Neradko, head of the Federal Air Transportation Agency.
Currently, both Russian and English are used for radio communication at the country’s international airports, while the rest only use Russian.
Neradko said it was difficult for dispatchers to accept incoming flights in two languages, posing a safety risk. The conversations are held on one frequency, meaning that they are heard by all pilots, who need to know what nearby planes are doing, he said.
In March, all international airports will switch to English. At the same time, pilots and staff will be required to demonstrate Level 4 conversational skills according to the six-level scale of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.
The organization had planned to introduce that requirement in 2008, but a three-year delay was requested for several countries, including Russia, to train pilots and flight control staff.
In Russia, knowledge of “radio-exchange terminology,” a standard set of commands and phrases, is all that is needed now, Neradko said.
The new ICAO standards would require a knowledge of English comparable to that of graduates from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, he said, adding that companies were ready to make the change.
Level 4 under the ICAO system is roughly equivalent to the knowledge of a high school student who scores a B- or C+ in English, said Sergei Melnichenko, deputy head of the language school Kompleng, which has a program for aviation professionals.
The current level is adequate for standard flights, he said. But in an emergency, more fluency is needed to give advice and make quick decisions, requiring at least Level 4 knowledge, Melnichenko said.
In March, a Swiss Air flight taking off from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport struck a flock of birds, causing vibrations in both engines and forcing the pilots to issue a Mayday signal. The air traffic controller was unable to understand the problem for several minutes until a pilot on another plane explained the situation in Russian.
An eight-minute audio recording of the incident, including further miscommunication once the plane had safely landed, was eventually posted online. Aviation officials have confirmed its authenticity.” [The article continues.]