When ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) adopted strengthened Language Proficiency Requirements (LPRs) in 2003, it noted that "recent major accident investigations have indicated lack of proficiency and comprehension of the English language by flight crews and air traffic controllers alike as a contributing factor." 

According to ICAO, four high-profile accidents accounted for the fact that “between 1976 and 2000, more than 1,100 passengers and crew lost their lives in accidents where language issues played a contributory role.”

  • 1978: Runway collision at Tenerife, Spain
  • 1990 : Fuel exhaustion, New York, USA
  • 1995: Controlled flight into terrain, Cali, Colombia
  • 1998: Midair collision, India

In each of these accidents, problematic communications between pilots and air traffic controllers were noted, or cited as contributing/latent factors, during the accident investigation.

Raising Awareness of Language Factors

The ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements only address the English language proficiency required for safe and effective radiotelephony communications. The ICAO LPRs do not address the language proficiency requirements for safe and effective Crew Resource Management when flight crews use English as a foreign language. In addition, there are no ICAO Standards for reading proficiency for pilots or maintenance technicians, although both groups of aviation professionals must read complex aviation texts written in English.

One positive consequence of the ICAO LPRs has been to raise industry awareness of language factors throughout the industry. Nonetheless, an ongoing, multi-year review of accident investigation reports covering the years 1990 and 2012 identified a number of ways that the role of language factors in accident investigations is sometimes obscured or overlooked. 

When possible contributing or latent factors related to language are not specifically or clearly addressed in the Findings and/or Recommendations of an accident investigation report, then industry understanding of language factors remains less well understood. Since the 1970s there has been an increased focus on aviation human factors. The positive impact of improved understanding of aviation human factors includes, notably, the introduction of Crew Resource / Threat and Error Management into standard operations, improved understanding of fatigue and stress, and increased awareness of the importance of communications.

Nonetheless, approximately fifty years after the introduction of aviation human factors as a field of academic inquiry and of practical concern to the industry, overall understanding of language as a human factor in aviationhas not kept pace with industry understanding of other human performance factors.

LHUFT at Embry-Riddle

In 2017, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University established the Language as a Human Factor in Aviation Safety (LHUFT) initiative to:

  • Increase awareness of the role of language in all aspects of aviation safety;
  • Support human factors specialists, accident investigators, and safety experts in considering the role of language and communication in aviation operations; and
  • Conduct and support meaningful research on language and culture in aviation.

For more information about language as a human factor, explore the following:

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