UK CAA finds many aviators don’t meet ICAO’s English standards

It is clear that not all pilots and controllers meet the English-language standard ICAO requires of them when using ICAO standard phraselogy – which is based on the English language and often called ‘aviation English’ – and plain-language English in international civil-aviation operations, a new research report commissioned by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) concludes.

ICAO standard phraseology – part of standard aviation language – is a specialized code used by pilots and air traffic controllers working in international commercial and civil aviation. It uses specific standards, phrases, and levels of proficiency established by ICAO, which requires pilots and controllers working in international civil aviation to demonstrate proficiency in the English language to a minimum Operational Level 4, as specified by ICAO.

Various circumstances are responsible for the fact not all pilots and controllers can meet ICAO’s required English-language proficiency standards, according to the report. These include them being unable to access English-language proficiency courses and – for some pilots and controllers – an inability to master the English language, according to the report.

However, the research report – authored by Dr Barbara Clark of the communication-analysis consulting firm You Say Tomato and entitled ‘Aviation English Research Project: Data analysis findings and best practice recommendations’ – also finds there are “grounds to suspect cheating on aviation English exams”.

Ominously, the report also finds there are “grounds to suspect that some non-native English speakers are not being tested, but instead are granted ICAO Level 4 certificates on ‘sweetheart’ deals (handshakes, via friends, etc.)”.

Additionally, Dr Clark’s report, which investigates pilot/air traffic controller communication issues as evidenced in CAA Mandatory Occurrence Reports (MORs), also finds that “ICAO levels of language proficiency, especially Level 4, are not robust enough to ensure appropriately clear pilot/controller communication”.

Among the other key language-related problems identified by Dr. Clark’s investigation are:

  • Readback-hearback errors, on the parts of both UK and non-UK pilots and controllers;
  • Call-sign confusion, on the parts of both UK and non-UK pilots and controllers;
  • Non-UK pilots and controllers displaying language proficiency below ICAO minimum standard;
  • Reduced situational awareness occurring as a result of multiple languages being used and heard on pilots’ and controllers’ radios;
  • Both native and non-native English speakers using non-standard aviation phraseology; and
  • Poor language-related MOR reporting culture and under-reporting of language proficiency issues by UK pilots and controllers.

The report makes nine key recommendations for the UK CAA to follow to improve the standard of English-language communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

First is that the UK should emphasize to a greater degree the importance of reporting language-related miscommunication issues to airlines, the CAA, and the UK’s Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP). The CAA should stress that language-related miscommunication issues are as important to aviation safety as other safety issues such as mechanical problems, turbulence, disruptive passengers, etc.

Second is that the CAA should work with ICAO member states to agree that English becomes the language used in all aviation radio communications, when there is a reasonable expectation that it might benefit the safety of international traffic irrespective of the country or local language involved. The report also recommends that the CAA work with European national aviation authorities to reduce language-related miscommunication between UK pilots and controllers based in continental Europe.

Another key recommendation made by the report is that the CAA should increase its language-testing spot checks and expand its safety assessments of foreign aircraft (SAFAs) to include language assessment, to ensure that non-UK pilots’ levels of English proficiency actually match what their ICAO certificates of proficiency state.

The report also recommends that the CAA continue working with airlines and EASA to reduce the incidence of flights with similar call-signs operating on similar routes and the same radio frequencies. At the same time, the CAA should increase its vigilance with regard to pilot and controller readback and hearback, to make sure readbacks and hearbacks are given correctly.

It should also ensure that all participants in aviation radio communication fully understand the messages that speakers are trying to communicate, by means of measures such as training. In parallel, the CAA should emphasize the importance of using ICAO standard phraseology (instead of plain language) whenever possible to pilots and controllers, especially native English speakers.

The report also calls upon ICAO and relevant national aviation authorities to ensure that no coaching, prompts, or other forms of cheating occur during ICAO Language Proficiency Level certification pilot and controller exams.

At the same time, ICAO needs to revise and improve its mandated English-language proficiency levels, according to the report. It states: “[The] current ICAO Level 4 [English proficiency standard] allows for some level of misunderstanding [and] the evidence is that this safety risk should be managed more effectively. There should be no room for lack of language proficiency in international aviation.”


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