The Universal Aviation Language: English

In the interest of safe skies, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) promotes flight communication in one standardized language. It’s called Aviation English.

Since the 1940s English has been the primary language of communication in aviation. But over the years, as air travel increased exponentially, the lack of a required, standardized English for the industry became increasingly dangerous. The decision to address language proficiency for pilots and air traffic controllers was first made in September 1998 as a direct response to fatal accidents in which the lack of proficiency in English was identified as a contributing factor. This was formalized in 2008 when the ICAO introduced Aviation English proficiency requirements for aviation workers around the world.

The Universal Aviation Language: English

English makes sense as the universal language of the skies. Aviation was born in the US, with industry giants located from the start in English-speaking countries. But there are additional, interesting attributes of English that make it a good choice for the kind of high-stakes international communication involved with air travel:

  1. Millions of people around the world learn English as a second (or third or fourth) language, for many reasons.
  2. English is not a deferential language weighted by careful civilities and honorifics; thus it allows more equal standing between colleagues, which is especially important in high-pressure situations.
  3. English is already the accepted lingua franca for business worldwide.
  4. It’s the official language of many major global institutions.
  5. The international scientific community also uses English as its bridge language.

Aviation English is not equivalent to common English. Professionals in the aviation field who are English natives have to study in order to pass the language tests that are based on six language skill areas: pronunciation, structure, vocabulary/aviation terminology, fluency, comprehension, and interactions. And they must be able, not only to speak accurately, but to listen without error.

Here’s an example of a major source of difficulty that Aviation English addresses: when pilots and air traffic controllers talk back and forth there are no supportive facial cues. All understanding must be achieved with words transmitted through electronics, without gestures. So one of the first required skills pilots, air traffic controllers, and others must develop – even if they are native English speakers – is a neutral accent, whether they are from Houston, Paris, or Moscow. (An added benefit to having foreign aviation workers speak English may be psychological – there is evidence that when people speak in a second language their thinking is more logical, less emotional.)

Another feature of Aviation English is that there is ‘standard phraseology’ that must always be used in critical moments, such as take-off and landing. The ‘plain language’ used for less formal communication also involves standardized choices that increase understanding and streamline messaging. In most situations there are uniform word choices that optimize clarity and safety.

While Aviation English tests are not universally available, the ICAO supports development of them with detailed information, such as their Aviation English Training Design and Development Plan.

“As aviation continues to grow, with almost 100,000 flights a day today and 200,000 daily expected by 2030, it’s imperative that ICAO continues to evolve and refine its safety support tools,” the UN body’s Secretary General, Raymond Benjamin, said a few years ago. “This helps to ensure that passengers around the world can continue to look to air travel as their safest means of rapid global connectivity.”

Thus another sort of English “dialect” has been born and developed in the way languages always begin and change – out of necessity. This time for the needs of the “tribe” that makes human flight possible.

J. V. McShulskis

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