Airline safety compromised by poor communication

Date: 4 March 2009

Charles Alderson was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning about his research into airline safety and poor communication skills. His research suggests that Inadequate English language tests for pilots and air traffic controllers are putting lives at risk and there is concern that new tests, which were due to come into place in March 2008, have now been postponed by three years until 2011.

Listen to the interview (MP3)

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."

  • In 1996, a Kazakhstan Airline aeroplane collided mid-air with a Saudi Arabian Boeing 747 over New Delhi in India, killing 351 people. The air traffic controller was Indian and the pilots were Saudi and Russian.
  • In 1991, Avianca Flight 052 crashed en route from Bogota Colombia to JFK New York after the crew failed to communicate clearly to air traffic control that their aircraft was running out of fuel. The air traffic controller also failed to clarify the situation on board the aircraft.
  • In 1977, almost 600 people died at Tenerife airport when a KLM Boeing 747 collided with another plane on take-off during foggy conditions. There was a misunderstanding of the phrase 'at take-off', and the failure of the senior Dutch pilot of the KLM to recognise that messages between the English-speaking pilot of the other aircraft and the Spanish air traffic controller indicated that the runway was not yet clear.

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.


Further information

Associated staff: J. Charles Alderson

Associated departments and research centres: Centre for Research in Language Education (CRILE), Linguistics and English Language

Keyword: Language testing