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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:

  • 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.)
  • B712 / CRJ7, vicinity Strasbourg France, 2019 (On 12 April 2019, a Boeing 717-200 commenced a go around at Strasbourg because the runway ahead was occupied by a departing Bombardier CRJ700 which subsequently, despite co-ordinated TCAS RAs, then came to within 50 feet vertically when only 740 metres apart laterally as the CRJ, whose crew did not see the 717, passed right to left in front of it. The Investigation attributed the conflict primarily to a series of flawed judgements by the TWR controller involved whilst also noting one absent and one inappropriate ATC procedure which respectively may have provided a context for the resultant risk.)
  • A319 / WT9, vicinity Stuttgart Germany, 2017 (On 26 June 2017, an Airbus A319 which had just taken off from Stuttgart came into conflict in Class ‘D’ airspace with a VFR light aircraft crossing its track and when, at 1,200 feet agl, the TCAS RA to descend which resulted was followed, an EGPWS Mode 3 Alert was generated. Clear of Conflict was annunciated after 10 seconds and climb resumed. The Investigation concluded that the light aircraft pilot had failed to follow the clearance which had been accepted and had caused the flight path conflict which was resolved by the response of the A319 to the TCAS RA.)
  • GLEX/F2TH, vicinity Ibiza Spain, 2012 (On 21 September 2012, two aircraft came into conflict in Class 'A' airspace whilst under radar control at night and loss of separation was resolved by TCAS RA responses by both aircraft. Investigation found that one of the aircraft had passed a procedurally-documented clearance limit without ATC clearance or intervention and that situational awareness of its crew had been diminished by communications with the conflicting aircraft being conducted in Spanish rather than English. A Safety Recommendation on resolving the "persistent problem" of such language issues was made, noting that a similar recommendation had been made 11 years earlier.)
  • A343, Bogotá Colombia, 2017 (2) (On 19 August 2017, an Airbus A340-300 encountered significant unforecast windshear on rotation for a maximum weight rated-thrust night takeoff from Bogotá and was unable to begin its climb for a further 800 metres during which angle of attack flight envelope protection was briefly activated. The Investigation noted the absence of a windshear detection system and any data on the prevalence of windshear at the airport as well as the failure of ATC to relay in English reports of conditions from departing aircraft received in Spanish. The aircraft operator subsequently elected to restrict maximum permitted takeoff weights from the airport.)


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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