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Ready for Take-off: Aviation English From Past to Future

Issue 2 - 2019
Ready for Take-off: Aviation English From Past to Future
by Gökhan Demirdöken, Researcher & English Language Instructor

Turkey has been the shining star of civil aviation over the last decade with its rapidly growing air traffic network, increasing interest in civil aviation, and never-ending demand on high-qualified aviation personnel. These developments both vow a bright future for Turkish civil aviation and necessitate the implementation of some new regulations including the ICAO requirements regarding the proficiency in Aviation English.

How is the increase in air traffic related to Aviation English?

Travelling by plane is fast becoming a part of many people’s daily routine. While some people simple use airplanes to travel on holidays or to pay a visit to someone, others frequently make use of them for business purposes. It is a well-known story for frequent flyers who commute to work by plane daily. More interestingly, these people pay for unlimited access to travel with the airline companies offering early flights to business centers. No matter how early they get up in the morning or how punctual they should be to catch their daily flight to work, the number of these people will keep increasing each year. What’s more in the near future, airplanes will be an indispensable means of transportation in our lives for our nine-to-five jobs. That’s why civil aviation has played and will always play a crucial role all around the world. The figures also say so. It was reported by International Air Transport Association (IATA) that 4.4 billion passengers preferred air travel in 2018 with an increase of 6.9% over 2017 in the world. Similarly, the latest report by General Directorate of State Airports Authority on air travel statistics in Turkey reveals the fact that over 1 million people preferred travelling by plane in Turkey between September 1-30, 2019. Upon completion of all phases, Istanbul Airport will reach the capacity to serve 200 million passengers annually. This will place the new airport and Turkey as one of the greatest hubs in the world. However, such growth in civil aviation both in Turkey and in the world signal a crucial issue for aviation authorities: safety.

Safety is, by far, the most important component of aviation both in the air and on the ground. From the very first moment passengers’ step inside the terminal building until they leave the airport at their final destinations, numerous safety checks are performed to ensure a safe flight. Nevertheless, human factor dominates all of those safety checks and for this reason, reducing the risk of air traffic accidents depends very much on annihilating the human factor. Although it is still unclear whether pilots, air traffic controllers, ground handling staff, line maintenance staff can be replaced or not by robots in the future, we know something for sure that we still need to rely on human-human interaction which means that any message will still be sent and received by human beings in the upcoming decades. Until that time, we have to keep learning more about human factor in civil aviation by analyzing the milestones to shape our future. The most prominent example of milestones in the history of civil aviation was what started in 1871 with an attempt to leave off the grass and stay in the air for a couple seconds. It was a ground-breaking success in civil aviation history at that time. Over the past 148 years there have been more of it such as the latest 19-hour record-breaking flight of Qantas. Although, it set a record for the world’s longest non-stop commercial passenger flight, it might have set another record. The first attempt of Wright brothers did not necessitate any type of ground handling or air traffic communication. However, current position of civil aviation now demands more aviation professionals than any time before. These include pilots, cabin crew, air traffic controllers, line maintenance staff, ground handling staff and so on. Meeting the demands of civil aviation is an important concern of aviation authorities and companies yet the real concern should be employing those who can comply with the requirements of aviation sector to minimize safety concerns regarding human factor.

The role of Aviation English becomes more and more clear when it comes to safety concerns. The increase in flight networks has made English language the top priority for airline companies and civil aviation authorities. Although professionals in the field of aviation have started to take the role of English language into consideration more seriously over the last decade, the emergence of Aviation English dates back to as early as World War II. Until it finally came to an end, communication was not considered as a major safety concern in aviation as the sky was relatively empty when compared to 2019. Later on, member states of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) held the Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944. The convention addressed the issue of air navigation in global civil aviation. Just after three years, in 1947, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was formed. It only took four years for ICAO to declare English as the official language of aviation and ICAO made the use of English for communication purposes for international flights obligatory in all airspaces. From 1951 when English was officially mandated for communication until today, aviation history has witnessed several accidents. As always, the causes of these air traffic accident have been crucial in understanding and putting forward advisory resolution to civil aviation communities. The research puts forwards that, from 1996 to 2005, out of 183 accidents the precise reason of which is known, 74 are related to pilot error. In an attempt to analyze the causes of such accidents and incidents, NASA researchers concluded that communication breakdown among pilots is more likely to reflect failures when compared to deficiencies in technical proficiency. This sheds light on the crucial role of communication in civil aviation. More interestingly, the data regarding the reports on NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System allowing pilots to report incidents revealed the fact that communication problems make up over 70% of what was reported on the system.

Unfortunately, the undeniable fact that communication is at the heart of civil aviation is not only limited to such reports. In 1976, the mid-air collision of a trident and a DC-9 caused the death of 176 people. This collision over Zagreb, Croatia was one of the earliest examples to the consequences of inadequate English language proficiency. British Airways flight 476 from London Heathrow Airport to Istanbul Atatürk Airport with 54 passengers and 9 crew members on board collided with Aviopromet flight 550 from Split to Cologne-Bonn at an altitude of around 10.000 meters. The eyewitnesses of this tragic accident saw corpses, bags, and other stuff falling from the sky. After the investigation, official reports pointed to English ability as contributory factor of the so-called Zagreb accident.

It had not been a year when the whole world was shocked by the Tenerife disaster. It was March 27, 1977 at Los Rodeos Airport, two Boeing 747 airplanes collided on the fuggy runway 30. The Dutch carrier KLM was operating from Amsterdam to Las Palmas and similarly Pan-American was serving on the route from Los Angeles to Las Palmas. However, the explosion in Las Palmas airport, they had to divert to their fate. The series of events ending up with the disaster in Tenerife had started with the taxi of KLM’s 747 to the end of runway. The pilots were cleared for taxi to the end of runway 30 and asked to hold position before take-off. Meanwhile, Pan-Am pilots were cleared to taxi on the same runway and asked to leave runway via C3. Then, having not clearly acknowledged the message KLM pilots started their take-off roll while Pan-Am was still taxiing on that runway. When Pan-Am tried to get off the runway, it was already too late? Although KLM had not been cleared for take-off, pilots had reported that they started their take-off roll over radio stating “at take-off” to a non-native English speaker Air Traffic Controller who took the “at” to literally mean “at the take-off position”. The worst accident until that time in civil aviation caused the death of 583 people. The official reports regarding the causes of the Tenerife Disaster indicated that English language proficiency was again a contributory factor.

These were followed by the accident of Avianca Boeing 707 after a fuel exhaustion in John F. Kennedy Airport in 1990 with 73 deaths, the accident of American Airlines Boeing 757 in Cali, Colombia in 1995 with 159 deaths, and the mid-air collision of an Illusion 76 and a Boeing 747 over Charkhi Dadri in India in 1996 with 349 deaths. The common issue regarding all of these accidents was the use of and proficiency in English language as a contributing factor.

The consequences of these accidents were fatal, and this led to a number of regulations to be implemented on English language proficiency of aviation personnel over the years. In 1997, the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA advised ICAO the legislation on English proficiency for pilots and air traffic controllers. Then, in 1998, ICAO published a resolution A32-16 stating the Council was urged to direct the Air Navigation Commission to consider the matter of English Language Proficiency … and to strengthen the relevant provisions of Annex-1 & 10- obligating Contracting States to take steps to ensure that air traffic controllers and flight crews involved in flight operations in airspace, where the use of the English language is required, are proficient in conducting and comprehending radiotelephony communications in the English language. Furthermore, ICAO established a study group called PRICE to review the language proficiency issue and develop a future plan regarding it.

Until 2004 when the ICAO Manual on the implementation of language proficiency requirements was released, two more air traffic accidents happened. The first one was in 2000 and included an MD 83 and a Shorts SD330 which collided on the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was formally determined that the language used for communication was a contributory factor as the SD330 crew were not aware that the MD 83 was going to take off. Similarly, in 2001, A Scandinavian MD 80 airliner with 104 passengers on board hit a private aircraft Cessna Citation killing 118 people. Everything seemed to be under control until the very last moment when the Cessna crossed the runway holding sign and entered the active runway 18L/36R while the MD-87 was speeding down the runway for take-off. The official reports showed that radio communications were performed in Italian and English language and the communication between the pilots of Cessna and ATC was far from acknowledging the real position of Cessna which then led to the collision.

Since 2004 when ICAO implemented new regulations on language proficiency requirements for air traffic controllers and pilots with an aim to improve the level of English language proficiency and reduce the number of communication breakdowns in civil aviation, the year of 2011 was set for the completion of these set of standards’ full implementation worldwide. The ICAO Language Proficiency Rating Scale included pronunciation, fluency, structure, vocabulary, comprehension, and interaction with a scoring of 1 to 6.

Today it is possible to observe the effects of this regulation by ICAO in different areas such as operators and language schools offering Aviation English courses, and both national and international institutions assessing the English language proficiency of air traffic controllers and pilots. While more and more Aviation English courses are offered each year by a growing number of institutions and language schools, the scholars also take teaching of Aviation English as part English for Specific Purposes (ESP) very seriously for improving the quality of such courses. Ultimately, everything that led to the implementation of new regulations on English language proficiency clearly paves the way for the increasing importance of Aviation English in the world and it is now “Ready for Take-off”.

Stay tuned for more about Aviation English during its cruise


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