Language as a Factor in Aviation Incidents and Accidents
ICAO phraseologies and plain language are required for safe radiotelephony
communications. The great emphasis is placed on the importance of the use of ICAO phraseology. The use of different phraseologies in different geographical areas increases the chances that communications will be misunderstood. Any deviation from ICAO standard phraseologies presents an obstacle to the best possible communication.
A number of major accident investigations has indicated lack of proficiency in and comprehension of the English language by flight crews and air traffic controllers as a contributing factor.
No set of standard phraseologies can fully describe all possible circumstances and responses. It is totally impossible to define instructions for all cases and write such a document as phraseology for emergencies.
That is why, we need plain language proficiency as a fundamental component of radiotelephony communications. It should be used in the same clear and unambiguous manner as the phraseology, for example, in emergencies or unusual situations. It is widely recognized that a need for plain language may quickly arise during emergency or unusual situations.
Sometimes a complication or an unexpected event can lead to a communication breakdown. It is important to have sufficient language proficiency and good skills to manage a dialogue through any unexpected event.
In three accidents (one collision on the ground, one accident involving fuel exhaustion and one controlled flight into terrain), over 800 people lost their lives. What these seemingly different types of accidents had in common was that, in each one, accident investigators found that insufficient English language proficiency on the part of the flight crew or a controller had played a contributing role in the chain of events leading to the accident.
It is the nature of pilots and ATCOs to adhere to strictly defined procedures and regulations but they should be able to demonstrate substantial flexibility in their response when they have an unusual situation.
The pilots and controllers should:
a) avoid jargon, slang and idiomatic expressions;
b) be clear, concise and direct;
c) speak slowly and clearly.
The language proficiency can help the pilots and ATCOs to reduce miscommunications. The language should be a tool to identify and help solve a problem before it becomes a disaster. The plain language is an option only when ICAO phraseologies are not available. ICAO standardized phraseology shall be used in all situations for which it has been specified.
Only when standardized phraseology cannot serve an intended transmission, plain language shall be used.
Language has three distinct roles in accidents and incidents
a) in the use of phraseologies
An incorrect use of phraseology can lead to an accident or incident. The purpose of using phraseologies is to promote clarity and brevity.
b) in the use of the plain language
The plain language is a link which can help to solve the problem in many everyday situations, as pilots and controllers often need to share information. Then, as it has already been mentioned, the standard phraseology cannot predict all emergencies and non-routine events. In this case the plain language plays a great role.
c) in the use of more than one language in the same environment
The use of two languages in the same environment can lead to a lack of situational awareness for flight crews who do not understand all the languages used for radiotelephony in that airspace. But the implementation of a single-language radiotelephony environment on a worldwide basis is not realistic in the short period of time.
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