Can Non-Native English Speaking Pilots Use Other Languages With Air Traffic Control?

One of the reasons flying is so safe is that a universal language is used for aviation – English. Especially for international operations, any pilot who wants to fly commercially for a living must achieve a certain level of English mastery. According to ICAO,

“Pilots, air traffic controllers and aeronautical station operators involved in international operations are required to attain the ability to speak and understand English to a level 4 proficiency of ICAO’s language proficiency rating scale.”

But what about pilots who only fly domestically or those who only fly general aviation aircraft?

Are there regulations for using English when communicating with ATC?

Legally, no. And even the regulations don’t always require the use of English. According to ICAO Annex 10, Volume II, Chapter,

“air-ground radiotelephony communications shall be conducted in the language normally used by the station on the ground or in the English language.”

There’s no regulation to stop a German crew flying into Frankfurt from conversing in German. But still, today, you would likely hear English over the radio, especially at such a large airport.

Pilot on the flight deck in flight.

Photo: Carlos E. Santa Maria I Shutterstock

When international traffic constantly lands at a given airport, gathering information from the aircraft ahead of you can be critical. Perhaps the weather changed suddenly just a few miles from the runway, and the initially safe landing conditions are no longer. If pilots can gather that information early, they have more headroom to decide if they want to hold and wait for the storm to pass or look for an alternate airport. But if there’s a language barrier, and the controller doesn’t repeat the new information in English, it’ll be up to the pilots to deal with the unknown conditions. As a standard of safety, the world’s largest airports primarily operate using English.

But since the regulations are flexible, European controllers and pilots still address each other in French and German or Chinese for flights in China and Taiwan. Smaller airports that don’t see international traffic outside private visitors may operate more casually with language. Controllers may have some command of English, though perhaps not as fluent since they don’t use it as often. But when you primarily ensure the safety of local Cessnas and business jets, it’s probably easier to use the language most people listening to the radio will understand.

How has language played a role in aviation incidents?

It’s not to say that language hasn’t been a factor in notable incidents, however. The anniversary of the tragedy at Tenerife just passed, involving KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736. Although a critical radio interference caused the KLM crew to miss ATC’s instructions, there were several misunderstandings between all parties. Of everything that went wrong that day, one item listed under the probable causes was ambiguous English radio transmissions. In the aftermath, authorities enacted new regulations on certain words and phrases.

A Pan Am Boeing 747 parked at an airfield.

And there was American Airlines Flight 965, a regularly scheduled passenger flight from Miami, Florida, USA, to Cali, Colombia. On December 20, 1995, American Airlines’ Boeing 757-200 registration N651AA crashed into a mountain in Buga, Colombia. While the major causes include a loss of situational awareness and refusal to discontinue their approach into Cali despite unsafe conditions for landing, the AA crew’s difficulty communicating with the Colombian air traffic controllers may have played a role.

Sources: ICAO, Uniting Aviation, International Aviation HQ, Sun Sentinel, High Sky Flying

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