Language barriers have played role in 10 major plane accidents

P. Kerim Friedman kerim.list at
Mon Feb 23 20:49:14 UTC 2004

Personally, I wonder if there wouldn't be just as many incidents
involving miscommunication if everyone spoke English...

- k

Language barriers have played role in 10 major plane accidents

  By Ken Kaye
  Staff Writer

  February 23, 2004

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series exploring the
effects of language on society.

  He didn't fully understand English, so the pilot of an Air France 747
ignored a New York controller's order to stop short of a runway. The
jumbo jet rolled in front of an Icelandair 757, which took off just in
time to avoid disaster.

  "It was so close, you were waiting to hear the sound of shearing
metal," said Barrett Byrnes, a controller in the John F. Kennedy
International tower that foggy day in June 1999.

  Since the early 1970s, language barriers have played a role in at
least 10 major accidents, killing more than 1,500 people and
contributing to dozens of close calls.

  To prevent more calamity, pilots and air traffic controllers worldwide
are being required by the International Civil Aviation Organization to
speak English fluently by 2008.

  Although English is the universal language of aviation, many foreign
pilots and controllers know only key words and phrases, leaving them
vulnerable during an emergency, says ICAO, a Montreal based-group that
governs global air operations.

  "It's a matter of safety," said Marjo Mitsutomi, a language professor
at Redlands University in California, who helped ICAO devise new
standards. "When something goes wrong, you need to be able to rely on
language itself, not memorized phrases."

  English is the native tongue of 400 million people worldwide, and 1.6
billion others use it as a second language, resulting in countless
dialects, accents and regionalized jargon, she said.

  To meet ICAO rules, pilots and controllers will have to demonstrate
they can speak English conversationally to obtain a work license,
including U.S. pilots and controllers, Mitsutomi said.

  The reason: Within the United States, varying dialects can be
difficult for foreign pilots to understand. For example, a flight crew
from India might not grasp a Southern drawl, she said.

  "All of them have to adjust their speech, accent and dialect in order
to be understood by the whole community," said Mitsutomi, a private
pilot fluent in five languages.

Language cited in 5 crashes

  In the deadliest air disaster , language played a major role. The
co-pilot of a KLM 747 radioed the control tower at Tenerife, in the
Canary Islands, "We are now at takeoff."

  Controllers interpreted that to mean the plane was ready to go, but
stopped short of the runway. But the 747 had started its takeoff run
and rammed into a Pan Am 747 on the same fog-laden runway, killing 583
on March 27, 1977.

  That accident prompted the ICAO to start a campaign to improve English

  Last year, after it had thoroughly studied the matter, it decided to
mandate aviation communication worldwide be standardized and set 2008
as a realistic deadline for its 188 member nations.

  Since 1990, language has been a factor in five major air-carrier

  Among them:

  In December 1995, an American Airlines jet that took off from Miami
crashed into a mountain near Cali, Colombia, killing 159. Its pilots
had difficulty understanding the Colombian controllers' instructions.

  In November 1996, the pilot of a Saudi Arabia Airlines Boeing 747
misunderstood a controller's directive to descend and instead climbed,
colliding with a Kazakhstan National Airways cargo plane near New
Delhi, India, killing 349.

  In August 1997, 226 were killed when a Korean Air jet slammed into a
ravine while approaching the airport in Guam because its crew was
confused over controller instructions.

  U.S. pilots say foreign air traffic controllers have improved their
English in recent years, but some still struggle. A well-known anecdote
among U.S. pilots: As a U.S. airliner approached an unnamed airport in
South America, its pilots requested the control tower relay the wind

  The controllers responded, "You're cleared to taxi."

  "They were reading from a script and had no idea what they were
saying," said Allen Cox, an American Airlines captain from Lighthouse
Point who flies to Central America.

  Cox said Cuban controllers' English used to be difficult to decipher,
but now they speak so well "they even understand some of the slang."

  However, he added, they too often speak in Spanish over the airwaves
to Latin American pilots, leaving U.S. pilots in the dark about what
was said as to a plane's position and altitude.

  "It's just something we'd like to know for safety sake," he said.

Did he hear what I said?

  U.S. controllers still deal with communications breakdowns, said
Byrnes, the JFK controller, who also is president of a National Air
Traffic Controller Association chapter.

  "[Foreign pilots] don't speak English well enough to keep a safe air
traffic control system," he said.

  Foreign carrier pilots frequently ask that instructions be repeated,
which is the right thing to do, Byrnes said.

  "So you say it again," he said. "But sometimes you're so busy you move
on to your next transmission. In the back of your head you're
wondering, did that guy understand what I said?"

  About 10,000 foreign pilots and controllers attend American
universities and aeronautical schools each year to hone their English
skills. With the ICAO language regulation, that number could double or
triple, experts say.

  And elsewhere around the world, linguistic specialists likely will
develop a cottage industry to help aviation workers pass the test.

  Mitsutomi helped devise a six-point English skills scale for ICAO,
placing a person who can barely say "hello" at the lowest level and a
skillful speaker at the top.

  The lion's share of the training will be paid for by the air carriers,
which employ pilots, and government authorities, which employ

  Ken Kaye can be reached at kkaye at or 954-385-7911.

  Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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