ICAO: missed language deadline means communication dangers remain

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Only 39 states among the International Civil Aviation Organisation's 190 member countries have met ICAO's 5 March deadline for testing the English language skills of pilots and controllers. Some five years ago the agency began a drive for a single aviation language in the international air traffic control environment, with pilots and controllers individually tested to a minimum communication skill level in English.

ICAO cites seven fatal accidents since 1976 that were caused by inadequate English language communication skills, or the use of multiple languages in the same airspace sector.

ICAO has refused to push back its deadline. Instead it has extended to 5 March 2011 the "period of grace" during which the agency urges language-compliant states not to exclude aircraft from non-compliant nations from their airspace.

According to ICAO, 71 states have not even submitted a date by which they plan to to submit a compliant language skills testing regime for approval, while the remaining 80 states have promised they will submit their strategies next year. Some of the states that have submitted no timetable are very small, but Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA have submitted no plans to ICAO yet, although another English-speaking nation - Australia - is fully compliant.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority says it does have a plan. It assumes that existing radio-telephony licensed pilots and controllers achieve ICAO level 4 compliance (see box), but it will require level 6 standards to be achieved during recurrent training, and new pilots/controllers must pass at level 6 also.

What communication skills mean

ICAO set 5 March 2008 as the date by which pilot and air traffic control officer English communication skills should have been tested to level 4 (level 6 is total fluency) as an essential endorsement to their licences if they are to be permitted to fly internationally or to handle international traffic. ICAO deemed the former standard, requiring understanding and expression of only the approximately 200 words or phrases used in official ATC terminology, no longer good enough for global aviation. The rationale is that skies have become busier, and smaller or poorer states that operated few international routes have increased the number of flights outside their territory, proliferating the number of native languages spoken by international pilots and ATCOs. ICAO was mandated to define tests of English communication skills that would demonstrate pilots and ATCOs could do more than handle simple ATC messages, having the ability to describe - and understand - non-standard or unusual situations or requirements.