“Tell Them We are in Emergency” – Linguistic Factors Contributing to the Crash of Avianca Flight 052


Avianca Flight 52 wreckage

On 25 January 1990, Avianca Flight 052 ran out of fuel and crashed after a missed approach to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. A number of causal factors were involved in the crash, some of which were linguistic. The accident has accordingly been cited by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in justification of a worldwide programme to improve the language proficiency of pilots and air traffic controllers that came into full effect on 5 March 2011. In this paper the accident is analysed using the ‘Swiss cheese’ model of accident causation developed by Reason (1990) and adapted by Wiegmann and Shappell (2003). The analysis shows that, while the linguistic factors were indeed significant, there were numerous non-linguistic causal factors that were also significant. Furthermore, stress, fatigue and cultural factors are all shown to have had an adverse effect on the communication performance of the flight crew.

“Tell them we are in emergency

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