ICAO New Language Proficiency Requirements: A Safety Priority For SEPLA

Between 1976 and 2000, more than 1,100 passengers and crew lost their lives in accidents in which investigators determined that language had played a contributory role. Moreover, numerous incidents involving language issues, including a number of runway incursions, are reported annually.

Concern over the role of language in airline accidents turned into action in 1998 when the ICAO Assembly assigned high priority to efforts to strengthen provisions concerning language requirements. Thus, in March 2003 ICAO amended Annexes 1, 6, 10 and 11 which contained the new language proficiency requirements. From 5th March 2008, a new ICAO proficiency standard for the use of English in aviation will become applicable to enhance safety. The emphasis is on the ability of pilots and air traffic controllers, both native and non-native English speakers, to comprehend and communicate effectively to a common standard.

The emphasis is firmly on speaking and listening abilities, and correct use of ICAO standard phraseology. ICAO standardised phraseology shall be used in all situations for which it has been specified. Only when standardised phraseology cannot serve an intended transmission, plain language shall be used. Moreover, the emphasis is on clarity, timely response and accuracy of ATC communication. Six levels of linguistic proficiency have been defined, with a minimum requirement to meet the ICAO Level 4 (operational). All pilots and controllers will be required to demonstrate proper adherence to ICAO international communication procedures. But the real emphasis is on comprehension and the ability to deal with non-standard situations. Provision is made for periodic retesting for those who cannot demonstrate Level 6 proficiency.

Article 33 of the Chicago Convention makes the international recognition of a flight crew license conditional on full compliance with all relevant ICAO Standards including language proficiency; so these requirements will pose a challenge not only for Spanish pilots; but for the entire aeronautical community (controllers and airlines), national Aviation Authorities and also the European Institutions. That is why SEPLA and many other pilot associations are taking this issue very seriously.

Considering that safety is at stake, SEPLA, as a stakeholder, is on the alert regarding the implementation process of these requirements. Each ICAO state will have to ensure that the means of achievement and compliance of both the training and tests will meet the expectations of ICAO. Furthermore, SEPLA estimates the need for some hundreds of hours of individual language training in some cases, and an enormous global population of flight crew to test and train. This requires an early and determined start by all involved. Unfortunately, the Spanish administration has taken no steps whatsoever to start implementing ICAO language proficiency requirements despite the fact that ICAO will review progress during 2006. We are aware that we still have a long way to go on this challenging road, but we will make sure we will succeed in our aim to achieve the right implementation process for the Spanish pilots' community.