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Multi-language ATC Operations

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Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
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Introduction

The default language of international aviation worldwide is English, although local languages are used concurrently for RTF communications, even in busy and complex operational environments. Sometimes this practice is ‘justified’ on a local level by the reasoning that it avoids possible misunderstandings when addressing local specifics and facilitates the speed of the communication process with the native flight crews. However, controllers using both English for communication with international flights and the country’s native language for communication with the local crews potentially prevent both crews from achieving the desired level of situational awareness with respect of the other traffic.

Description

In the context of the operational environment, the use of the English standard phraseology reduces the risk that a message will be misunderstood.

Use of Standard Aviation English phraseology is a major contribution to the reduction of ambiguity in aircraft/ATC communications and supports a common understanding among speakers of both:

  • Different native languages and
  • The same native language, but who use, pronounce or understand words differently.

English standard phraseology should be used in all communications (transmissions and receptions). When used properly, the information and instructions transmitted are of vital importance in assisting in the safe and expeditious operation of aircraft. However native language is still used locally, exceptionally for particular information or to describe unusual situations, or in case of an emergency. Incidents and accidents have occurred in which a contributing factor has been the poor situational awareness caused by the use of different languages on a single ATC frequency.

This subject was raised at the 40th Session of the Safety Regulation Commission (SRC)[1] by the UK SRC representative, introducing a Working Paper SRC40.09 on the “Use of more than one language at airports in EUROCONTROL Member States” with the aim of drawing attention to this significant aviation safety issue and to seek support for the launch of an SRC-led initiative to standardise language use at major international airports within EUROCONTROL Member States. At SRC41 an update on the results of the consultation on the subject was provided. SRC tasked a coordination group to continue discussions on the issue of the use of more than one language at airports in EUROCONTROL Member States.

As result, the following Recommendation was presented to the members of the provisional council (4-5 December 2012): States to progress their considerations regarding extending the use of English at airports and relevant surrounding airspace sectors with international traffic of more than 50.000 commercial IFR movements a year, with a view to improving safety in this field.

Accidents and Incidents involving use of different languages

The following events include "Multiple Language use on Frequency" as a contributory factor:

  • A320 / B738, en-route, near Córdoba Spain, 2014 (On 30 October 2014, a descending Airbus A320 came close to a Boeing 737-800 at around FL 220 after the A320 crew significantly exceeded a previously-instructed 2,000 fpm maximum rate of descent assuming it no longer applied when not reiterated during re-clearance to a lower altitude. Their response to a TCAS RA requiring descent at not above 1,000 fpm was to further increase it from 3,200 fpm. Lack of notification delayed the start of an independent Investigation but it eventually found that although the A320 TCAS equipment had been serviceable, its crew denied failing to correctly follow their initial RA.)
  • C25A / Vehicle, Reykjavik Iceland, 2018 (On 11 January 2018, a privately-operated Cessna 525A Citation with a two-pilot English-speaking crew made a night takeoff from Reykjavik without clearance passing within “less than a metre” of a vehicle sanding the out-of-service and slippery intersecting runway as it rotated. The Investigation noted that the takeoff without clearance had been intentional and due to the aircraft slipping during the turn after backtracking. It also noted that the vehicle was operating as cleared by the TWR controller on a different frequency and that information about it given to an inbound aircraft on the TWR frequency had been in Icelandic.)
  • B738, Alicante Spain, 2018 (On 7 June 2018, a Boeing 737-800 operated by a non-Spanish speaking crew was given takeoff clearance at Alicante after the same supervised student controller had previously cleared two vehicles to begin a full-length opposite-direction runway inspection in Spanish. The controller error was only recognised when the vehicles were able to transmit that they were still on the runway, the aircraft crew being unaware of the conflict until then told to reject the takeoff. The maximum speed reached by the aircraft was 88 knots and minimum separation between the aircraft and the closest vehicle was never less than 1000 metres.)
  • 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.)
  • A319 / A320, Paris CDG France, 2014 (On 25 November 2014, the crew of an Airbus A320 taking off from Paris CDG and in the vicinity of V1 saw an A319 crossing the runway ahead of them and determined that the safest conflict resolution was to continue the takeoff. The A320 subsequently overflew the A319 as it passed an estimated 100 feet agl. The Investigation concluded that use of inappropriate phraseology by the TWR controller when issuing an instruction to the A319 crew had led to a breach of the intended clearance limit. It was also noted that an automated conflict alert had activated too late to intervene.)


Editor's Note:

  1. ^ (SRC) undertakes EUROCONTROL's work in the field of ATM safety regulation across the whole ECAC area and is composed of senior executives from within organisations responsible for ATM safety regulation at national level. SRC is responsible for the development and uniform implementation of harmonised safety regulatory objectives and requirements for the European Air Traffic Management (ATM) and ensuring their effectiveness through measurement of safety performance.

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