Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Aviation"s official language "ENGLISH"

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How and Why English was Established as the Standard Language of Aviation

In the year 1944 on the 1st of November in response to a British initiative, the government of the United States invited 55 allied and neutral States to meet in Chicago. Out of the allied States invited 52 attended this meeting. The aim of this meeting was to discuss the international problems faced in Civil Aviation1.

Outcome of the Meeting

  • The Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation.
  • Formation of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization).
The Chicago Convention saw the implementation of English as the official standardized language to be used in Aviation around the world. English speaking countries dominated the design, manufacture as well as operation of aircrafts 1, it thus made sense to have English as the standard language that would be used by all the countries involved in Aviation around the globe. Having a standardized language aids in avoiding misunderstanding and confusion, aspects which both have an effect on air safety.

Problems When English isn’t One’s Native Tongue

Non- native English speakers have to learn basic English Phraseology as all the aircraft manuals, rules and regulations, checklist e.t.c are all written in English. Problems arise when English is a second language to the individual, as humans in general reason and think better in their native language. This thus becomes a problem non-native speakers have to overcome1.
Issues can also arise when other aviators in the area cannot fully understand another pilot's accent, potentially causing confusion as to aircraft location, intentions or in extreme cases, an emergency situation response. The main type of accident that could be caused by this is mid-air or near-miss collisions simply due to a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, mid-air collisions tend to be fatal, or at least extremely serious. It is very rare for a mid-air collision to end without any injuries or deaths.
The problem of English as a second language has played a big part in past accidents in the industry which this wiki contribution will address.

Language in Air Transport Accidents

Language difficulties have played a role in various aviation crashes, this Wiki contribution will vividly highlight on two accidents highlighting the aspect of the lack of proper use of English or miscommunication due to the parties involved being non-native English speakers.

The 1977 PAN Am Flight 1736 and KLM Flight 4805 Runway Collision

This is the world’s deadliest runway accident that occurred on the 27th of March 1977 when a Pan Am (PAA) flight 1736 collided with a KLM Flight 4805 in the Tenerife, Canary Island.
Although the usual terminology was used between ATC and the pilots confusion still arose due to misinterpretation2,due to language problems. The parties involved were speakers of Dutch and Spanish and although they used proper standard English it was not their native language. A good example of confusion is seen when the pilot of Pan Am was told to leave the runway on Taxi way three and the ATC had to repeat this instruction to the crew of Pan Am as the pilot actually heard 1st Taxi way on the first transmission of directions3 .They were 583 fatalities in this crash.


There many other accidents where language has played a contributing factor both as an Active or Latent error. Looking into accident history we notice the impact English plays in safety. Having a standard language with terminology that’s used and understood by all operators in the industry is crucial. Through proper CRM Training the barriers of English as a second language can be dealt with to lead to better communication in and out of the cockpit ensuring safety in the industry.

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