Comment: Talking is difficult

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Aviate, navigate, communicate. That is the traditional order of priorities for pilots. Today it is the same, but different. The aviate/navigate part is very nearly synonymous in highly automated aircraft operating in precision area navigation airspace heading for required navigation performance arrivals.

So where does this leave "communicate"? It is, at present, the least-changed part of the job. It is not automated at all, but with increasing traffic densities demanding more accurate aircraft trajectory control, communication is becoming more important, not less.

In due course datalink communications will take over all the routine work that voice communications must achieve today, leaving voice contact to deal with all the non-standard or unexpected events. But it will still take at least eight to 10 years to achieve this, so voice communication is going to be the default system for air/ground and air/air co-operation for a long time.

   

Air traffic controllers must now learn workable English

Meanwhile the International Civil Aviation Organisation's deadline for nations to meet its new language proficiency standard has just passed, and three-quarters of the world's states have either ignored it or delayed their programme for implementing it.

Let's return to that statement about what voice communication will do in the datalinked future: "Voice contact [will have] to deal with all the non-standard or unexpected events." That means emergencies, calls for assistance, changes forced by weather. Actually, voice has always had to do this as well as the routine stuff - and still does. But the standard radio telephony vocabulary all pilots have to learn is insufficient to deal with non-standard situations, and fatal accidents have happened when pilots have been unable to describe their situation, understand an air traffic control problem and outline the help they need. Of course ATC officers share this challenge.

More nations than ever now fly extensive international services to more countries. That means more pilots who share the skies think in a greater number of mother tongues than ever before. Voice communication is an issue. The world's states, at ICAO, agreed this and resolved to do something. Since Esperanto didn't work, English was chosen as the language that international aviators must share. But learning workable English takes years longer than learning to fly. This is an unwelcome fact in a world that is short of pilots, but it is an issue that cannot be ducked.