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Language and Cultural Differences on the Flight Deck

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Category: Human Behaviour Human Behaviour
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Accidents and incidents can and do happen when the members of the flight crew don not work well together, or collectively lose Situational Awareness. One of the main factors resulting in poor Crew Resource Management (Crew Resource Management) is miscommunication amongst the pilots in the cockpit, miscommunication which can be caused by language and cultural differences between the pilots.

According to Flight Safety Foundation (ALAR BN 2.3, see Further Reading), CRM studies show that language differences on the flight deck are a greater obstacle to safety than are cultural differences. Because English has become the common language of aviation, an effort has been initiated to improve the English-language skills of pilots and controllers worldwide.


The globalization of aviation is leading to a multicultural, multinational mix of crews. With differing ethnic and national backgrounds, pilots’ communicative styles also differ. Communicating in English is much more difficult for flight crew who are working in a second language, especially when they are under pressure as is the case during an emergency.

When under stress and communicating in a second language, speakers tend to revert to their native tongue. A speaker needs a high level of proficiency and strong self-discipline to continue speech in a non-native language when under stress. Even then, a partial reversion may manifest itself in grammatical constructions that are consistent with the native language but not with English. The outcome of this may be a statement, or an expression, which is difficult for the other pilot to understand. This difficulty can lead to miscommunication and compromise safety.

The cultural reasons for miscommunication can be measured by a “distance index” which is defined both by respect for authority and by the attitude toward the existing hierarchy. The existence of this flight deck gradient can cause some co-pilots to use highly softened speech in order to avoid confronting their seniors, even when such confrontation is necessary. A lack of effective communication between the members of the flight crew can also restrict the flow of safety-critical information, information which could prevent the occurrence of an aviation accident or incident.


Because human error continues to play a major role in aviation accidents and miscommunication can lead to human error, appropriate, consistent and intelligible flight crew communication remains a vital element in air safety. The following defense mechanisms can help ensure appropriate communication:

  • Procedures and rules - With the growth in global air traffic, the frequency of second language, multicultural communications between and amongst pilots and air traffic controllers will increase. One way to overcome limitations and difficulties in communication between people of different backgrounds is to implement specific procedures and protocols. In cross-cultural communication, even if conducted in a single language, speakers need to guard against confusion by careful observation of standard phraseology and accurate radiotelephony techniques.
  • Crew selection and pairing - Deficiencies in the both the linguistic and the operational spheres can be eliminated by means of appropriate individual training. During proficiency training, candidates’ individual difficulties should be addressed by appropriate methods (e.g. instrument proficiency training, language training, etc). The result of this individual training should then be verified during the proficiency check before the candidate is released for line duties. The mitigation of any deficiencies which still exist in a crew member must be overcome by further training and by careful crew pairing.
  • Cultural indoctrination - When direct-entry commanders are employed by an operator, that operator must provide a particularly comprehensive induction procedure. In addition to operational aspects of the appointment, this indoctrination should also acquaint the new captains with the special features of the cultural, linguistic and social environment. During the obligatory line check, successful compliance with the following criteria should in turn be checked:
    • CRM with particular reference to the two-man cockpit and the cultural norms
    • Appropriate linguistic proficiency for the current operation
  • Balanced authority gradient - Airlines have started to reduce the impact of mitigated or deferential communication in the cockpit by making co-pilots address superiors by their first name and by encouraging them to be more assertive and to become more comfortable with negative responses. They also encourage captains to be less dominant and to operate as organizers rather than as superiors. Reducing the authority gradient is intended to make it easier for first officers to speak up in order to help identify any errors induced or overlooked by the captain.
  • Cultural diversity awareness training - In many cultures, deference is often given to age, rank, seniority, role, caste etc. When this is brought into the workplace, it can create barriers to effective use of team resources. It is therefore important for pilots (and other safety critical workers) to undertake cultural diversity awareness training, and for organisations to adopt effective strategies to reduce the associated risks.

Accidents involving cultural and linguistic differences

Incidents and accidents have occurred in which the miscommunication between the members of the crew, either due to cultural or language barriers, has been considered a contributing factor. Examples include:

  • SF34, vicinity Zurich Switzerland, 2000 (HF LOC FIRE) - On 10 January 2000, two minutes and 17 seconds after departure from Zurich airport, at night in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), a Saab 340 operated by Crossair, entered into dive and crashed. The flight crew reacted inappropriately to the change in departure clearance and the commander took the aircraft into a spiral dive because, he had lost spatial orientation. The first officer took inadequate measures to prevent or recover from the spiral dive. A contributory factor the ancident was that the commander was not systematically acquainted by operator with the specific features of western systems and cockpit procedures.
  • B743, vicinity Won Guam Airport, Guam, 1997 (CFIT HF WX) - On 6 August 1997, Korean Air flight 801, a Boeing 747-300, crashed at night at Nimitz Hill, 3 miles southwest of Won Guam International Airport, Agana, Guam while on final approach for runway 6 Left. Hierarchical stratification of Korean society and authority, as related to interactions among the flight deck crew during this crash, is considered a factor in why concerns about a failed approach were not noticed by the captain.

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