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Plane English

Paul Stevens, CEO of Mayflower College in Plymouth, UK, has been specialising in Aviation English training and testing since 1992. Here, Paul explains what Aviation English is, and how it differs from others forms of English for Specific Purposes (ESP).

The aviation industry generates many billions of dollars in revenue each year and sustains millions of jobs, both directly and indirectly; airports, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, logistics companies and associated businesses all contribute significantly to the global economy. Experts predict that by 2033 the number of commercial aircraft will rise by 33% and that passenger numbers will grow by 5.8% per year until 2040.

The common language of international aviation is English.

The term ‘Aviation English’ could cover many professions, including flight attendants, mechanics, airport security officers, IT experts, engineers, and baggage handlers who all have specific ESP requirements. In reality, Aviation English usually means the language used by pilots and air traffic controllers, especially when they are communicating with each other over the radio. Controllers typically speak directly with pilots to manage traffic flows and ensure aircraft reach their destinations safely and efficiently.

Radiotelephony – the act of speaking over radio – has been the focus of much attention since 2008, when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), introduced the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements. Essentially this means that all pilots and controllers working internationality must have a minimum level of Aviation English, commonly referred to as ICAO Operational Level 4. Most have to pass Aviation English exams every 3-5 years, and many take English courses to help them prepare.

The primary goal of Aviation English is to ensure the clear and unambiguous transfer of information. It is generally divided into two parts: Standard Phraseology and Plain English.

Standard Phraseology

A lot of communication between pilots and controllers is routine. As an example, air traffic controllers will: provide pilots with permission to land, take off, or taxi; give information about the weather; give instructions for which direction to fly, at what speed, and at what altitude.

To handle these routine situations, Standard Phraseology is used, which is typically taught by aviation experts, rather than EFL teachers. Here’s one example:


Pronunciation is different in some cases, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. As such, the numbers three, four, five and nine are pronounced ‘tree’, ‘fo-wer’, ‘fife’ and ‘niner’, respectively. However, Standard Phraseology cannot cover every possible situation. This is where Plain English comes into play.

Plain English

When Standard Phraseology is no longer sufficient, pilots and controllers are required to switch to Plain English.

Plain English does not follow the strict and standardised terminology of Standard Phraseology. However, it is also not ‘General English’. In aviation, Plain English is characterised by its simplicity and clarity. It avoids complex sentence structures, jargon and technical terms that may be difficult for non-native speakers to understand.

This could be:

‘The airport’s medical services have requested an update on your sick passenger.’

‘You are approaching restricted airspace. Do you have permission to enter?’

‘Our injured passenger is only suffering from minor cuts and bruises. We no longer need that ambulance upon arrival.’

The goal is to make communication as straightforward as possible, delivered clearly, precisely and slowly; ICAO recommends a maximum speech rate of 100 words per minute. Plain English can be taught by suitably trained EFL teachers.

So, how is Aviation English different from other forms of ESP? It comes down to a few factors:

1) The stakes are extremely high. It is difficult to think of another domain where the consequences of miscommunication can be so catastrophic; it has been shown to be a factor in 70% of all aviation incidents and accidents.

2) In the testing process, pilots and controllers are tested only on their speaking and listening skills.

3) One of the functions of language is to form bonds and relationships between people. In Radiotelephony, this is not the case; personal names are not used and ‘chatting’ is strongly discouraged.

4) In traditional settings, teachers often encourage their students to improve their fluency, even if this is at the expense of accuracy. In Radiotelephony, accuracy is paramount; a misunderstanding over a single word can have grave consequences.

5) ‘Read-back’ is a critical procedure to maintain safety in aviation. Read-back is the process by which a pilot repeats an instruction or clearance to confirm they correctly heard and understood, allowing the controller to verify that the pilot can comply.

Communication is a shared responsibility

An interesting development in Aviation English, and other domains, is the growing awareness that the responsibility for effective communication does not lie solely with non-native speakers improving their English; native speakers also have a critical role to play and could contribute much more by:

  • Improving their empathy for the challenges
    faced by their NNES colleagues.
  • Speaking more clearly, concisely and slowly.
  • Avoiding idiomatic language and jargon.

A survey of 1,974 pilots and controllers from 112 countries asked: ‘Do you think that aviation safety is ever compromised because of the way native speakers use English?’ Of those who answered, 65% said ‘yes’.

Although the teaching of Aviation English is largely unregulated, there are opportunities for EFL teachers looking to specialise. With suitable training and experience, English language teachers can also work in the delivery and grading of tests using the parameters and descriptors developed by ICAO.

Aviation is a fascinating industry where safety is always at the forefront of people’s thinking. Communication in English is at the very heart of this effort.

Watch Paul’s video on page 25 of our digital edition for more information.

Image courtesy of Library
Paul Stevens
Paul Stevens
Paul is the founder/CEO of Mayflower College, Plymouth, which has specialised in the teaching and testing of Aviation English for over 30 years. His latest project is in helping native English speakers to improve their communication skills with non-native English speakers.
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