Is ICAO Level 4 English Enough to Ensure International Air Safety?

TICAO_LOGOhe UK Civil Aviation Authority has just commissioned a new report into the English language used by pilots flying into the UK and air traffic controllers operating internationally.

It seems there is anecdotal evidence that industry-wide English standards are not as high as they should be and, as a result, there are fears regarding safety in the air.

Dr Barbara Clark, a linguist and anthropologist specialising in aviation communication and safety at Queen Mary, University of London will be leading the research. She states, ‘This project shows that the UK recognises the need to maintain clear and unambiguous communication in aviation, and is treating it as a serious matter.’

While it should be emphasised that the report is investigating anecdotal evidence rather than actual accidents, the fact that this has come up at all puts a question mark over the framework introduced by ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

The ICAO framework states that English is the international language of aviation, and breaks down language skills into 6 levels of ability, ranging from complete beginner to expert or fluent level. It introduced a legal requirement in 2008 that all pilots or air traffic controllers working in international air space had to be at level 4 or ‘operational’ competency level. This was then fully implemented in 2011.

The ruling was designed to ensure that pilots and controllers’ ability to communicate in English was sufficient to handle both routine and non-routine situations. The move was prompted by serious concerns arising from the rise in international air traffic, the number of pilots and controllers who could not communicate effectively with each other, and the consequent safety hazards. High profile accidents such as the Charkhi Dadri Mid-Air collision in 1996, where miscommunication was a key factor, accelerated the process.

Things have moved quickly to match high international demand, especially from key aviation markets such as China and Brazil. Now there are a number of officially recognised exams used to assess level 4 competency, taken by 100s of pilots and air traffic controllers every year. Specialist Aviation English programmes – both face-to-face and online – have been developed and are delivered around the world. In addition, Aviation English has become a recognised discipline within the international English Language Teaching industry, with specialist trainers and consultancies in many countries.

However is it enough? Is Level 4 sufficient to ensure international air safety, to prevent accidents and loss of life? Is miscommunication still a problem? This is the question raised by the UK Civil Aviation Authority commissioning this new report.

As Dr Clark says, “Most interaction between pilots and controllers happens without any ambiguity or misunderstanding but there are still instances where meaning is unclear, not everyone is on the same page, and mistakes can happen. Given the global nature of aviation and the many different cultural backgrounds of pilots and controllers, it’s understandable that some misunderstandings occur.’

ICAO level 4 may prove to be a stepping stone rather than the final answer to the issue of eliminating language-related problems contributing to aviation accidents. Ensuring the highest of safety standards in a complex global industry is never going to be an easy task and will require on-going analysis and development in order to create a solution that works.

As a result, such research can only be a positive move, even if it ends up compromising the Aviation English exams and courses so carefully developed over the last few years. The report will be published next year. We at Specialist Language Courses look forward to reading its conclusions and seeing how it may impact on Aviation English and on the programmes we design and deliver.

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