Lancaster University

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Airline Safety Compromised By Poor Communication

03/02/2009 11:58:24

Inadequate English language tests for pilots and air traffic controllers are putting lives at risk according to a Lancaster University researcher.

Professor Charles Alderson of the Department of Linguistics and English Language says that poor communication is implicated in several crashes. He has little confidence in the current standard of aviation language tests, which assess the competence of ground control and pilots to communicate in English, the international language of aviation.

He said: “The consequences of inadequate language tests being made available to license pilots, air traffic controllers and other aviation personnel are almost too frightening to contemplate.”

He also expressed concern that the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation has postponed the requirement for aviation personnel in its 190 member states to reach a certain standard of English by three years until 2011.

He said that numerous fatal accidents have occurred which involved confusion between pilots and air traffic controllers who may not be native speakers of English.

“In three accidents alone, 1,006 people died at least in part because of language that gave rise to communication problems.”

Professor Alderson says unpredictable emergency situations where people are under stress are more likely to cause misunderstandings, especially with a multicultural cockpit crew. But he said non-native speakers of English are often better at the simplified English used in aviation than native speakers, who may use colloquialisms and idioms not understood by non-native speakers.

“Clearly, aviation language tests are extremely high stakes, not just for the test-takers but for every potential airline passenger, crew member and air-traffic controller, not to mention the airline companies, insurance companies, etc. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that such tests are constructed to the highest possible standards. “

His research concluded that many of the assessment procedures required by national civil aviation authorities appear not to meet international professional standards for language tests, that the implementation of the language assessment policy is inadequate, and that much more careful and close monitoring is needed of the quality of the tests and assessment procedures required by the ICAO’s policy.