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English Language Proficiency Requirements

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Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
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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.

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:

  • AT75 / B739, Medan Indonesia, 2017 (On 3 August 2017, a Boeing 737-900ER landing at Medan was in wing-to-wing collision as it touched down with an ATR 72-500 which had entered the same runway to depart at an intermediate point. Substantial damage was caused but both aircraft could be taxied clear. The Investigation concluded that the ATR 72 had entered the runway at an opposite direction without clearance after its incomplete readback had gone unchallenged by ATC. Controllers appeared not to have realized that a collision had occurred despite warnings of runway debris and the runway was not closed until other aircraft also reported debris.)
  • 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.)
  • 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.)
  • B735, vicinity Madrid Barajas Spain, 2019 (On 5 April 2019, a Boeing 737-500 crew declared an emergency shortly after departing Madrid Barajas after problems maintaining normal lateral, vertical or airspeed control of their aircraft in IMC. After two failed attempts at ILS approaches in unexceptional weather conditions, the flight was successfully landed at a nearby military airbase. The Investigation found that a malfunction which probably prevented use of the Captain’s autopilot found before departure was not documented until after the flight but could not find a technical explanation for inability to control the aircraft manually given that dispatch without either autopilot working is permitted.)
  • 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.)

Related Articles

Further Reading

ICAO

UK CAA