English as the Official Aviation Language

How and Why English was Established as the Standard Language of Aviation

In the year 1944 on the 1st of November in response to a British initiative, the government of the United States invited 55 allied and neutral States to meet in Chicago. Out of the allied States invited 52 attended this meeting. The aim of this meeting was to discuss the international problems faced in Civil Aviation1.

Outcome of the Meeting

  • The Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation.
  • Formation of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization).

The Chicago Convention saw the implementation of English as the official standardized language to be used in Aviation around the world. English speaking countries dominated the design, manufacture as well as operation of aircrafts 1, it thus made sense to have English as the standard language that would be used by all the countries involved in Aviation around the globe. Having a standardized language aids in avoiding misunderstanding and confusion, aspects which both have an effect on air safety.

Problems When English isn’t One’s Native Tongue

Non- native English speakers have to learn basic English Phraseology as all the aircraft manuals, rules and regulations, checklist e.t.c are all written in English. Problems arise when English is a second language to the individual, as humans in general reason and think better in their native language. This thus becomes a problem non-native speakers have to overcome1.

Issues can also arise when other aviators in the area cannot fully understand another pilot's accent, potentially causing confusion as to aircraft location, intentions or in extreme cases, an emergency situation response. The main type of accident that could be caused by this is mid-air or near-miss collisions simply due to a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, mid-air collisions tend to be fatal, or at least extremely serious. It is very rare for a mid-air collision to end without any injuries or deaths.

The problem of English as a second language has played a big part in past accidents in the industry which this wiki contribution will address.

Language in Air Transport Accidents

Language difficulties have played a role in various aviation crashes, this Wiki contribution will vividly highlight on two accidents highlighting the aspect of the lack of proper use of English or miscommunication due to the parties involved being non-native English speakers.

The 1977 PAN Am Flight 1736 and KLM Flight 4805 Runway Collision

PAN AM & KLM Crash, Image Embedded from[http://www.1001crash.com] on 08 September 2010 PAN AM & KLM Crash, Video Embedded from[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa4dr6NoWJc] on 08 September 2010

This is the world’s deadliest runway accident that occurred on the 27th of March 1977 when a Pan Am (PAA) flight 1736 collided with a KLM Flight 4805 in the Tenerife, Canary Island.
Although the usual terminology was used between ATC and the pilots confusion still arose due to misinterpretation2,due to language problems. The parties involved were speakers of Dutch and Spanish and although they used proper standard English it was not their native language. A good example of confusion is seen when the pilot of Pan Am was told to leave the runway on Taxi way three and the ATC had to repeat this instruction to the crew of Pan Am as the pilot actually heard 1st Taxi way on the first transmission of directions3 .They were 583 fatalities in this crash.

The1990 Avianca Flight 52 Crash

Avianca Flight 52 Crash, Image Embedded from[http://www.photovault.com/ on 09 September 2010 Avianca Flight 52 Crash, Video Embedded from[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DEz_Yokh-g] on 09 September 2010

This was a scheduled flight from Bogota to JFK (John F Kennedy) International Airport on the 25th of January 1990. On this particular day there was heavy fog at the JFK airport and the Avianca Flight 52 was forced to hold over the airport for an hour using up its reserve fuel. The pilot notified the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) that they required a ’Priority Landing’ but because of the terminology used the ATC did not realise the urgency. The aircraft ran out of fuel causing it to crash into the village of Cove Neck, Long Island, New York. Upon investigation by the NTSB it was realized that one of the contributing factors was the wrong use of terminology. The NTSB accident report also stated after interviewing an Air Traffic Controller that the standard terminology that would enable the controller to realize it was urgent would be for the pilot to say,” MAYDAY”, ”PAN, PAN,PAN” and “Emergency”. During investigation by the NTSB a foreign airline was interviewed and its pilots acknowledged that, pilots who are limited by English vocabulary are forced to use terms that they are familiar with, in this instance ‘Priority’, which to the pilot of Avianca Flight 52 meant urgency. However this caused confusion between the pilot and ATC due to language barrier4.

Language difficulties may have also been a factor of the 1996 mid air crash between Saudi Arabian Airline’s B-747 and Kazakhstan Airline’s Ilyushin I-76 which occurred on the 12th of November near Charkhi Dadri, India1.This was the worst mid-air collision in aviation that lead to a fatality of 349 lives.


There many other accidents where language has played a contributing factor both as an Active or Latent error. Looking into accident history we notice the impact English plays in safety. Having a standard language with terminology that’s used and understood by all operators in the industry is crucial. Through proper CRM Training the barriers of English as a second language can be dealt with to lead to better communication in and out of the cockpit ensuring safety in the industry.


1.Orlady ,H., & Orlady, L.(1999).Human Factors in Multi-crew Flight Operations. Published Aldershot : Ashgate.

2.Aviation Safety Network(2010). Accident Description. Retrieved on 07, September, 2010. From

3.Perezgonzalez, JD. (2009). YouTube Video Part 5 of 9. Watched and Information Retrieved on 07, September, 2010, from http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/asi:klm-4805

4.NTSB.(1990). Aircraft Accident Report. Avianca, The airline of Columbia Boeing 707=321B, HK 2016 Fuel Exhaustion Cove Neck. New York January 25,1990. Retrieved on 08, September, 2010, from http://libraryonline.erau.edu/online-full-text/ntsb/aircraft-accident-reports/AAR91-04.pdf

Want to know more?

Chicago Convention: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_International_Civil_Aviation


PAN Am Flight 1736 & KLM flight 4805. http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/asi:klm-4805

Avianca Flight 52: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avianca_Flight_52

Avianca Flight 52: http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/asi:avianca-flight-52

Language and Cultural Barriers in the Aviation Industry: http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:language-and-cultural-barriers-in-the-aviation-indu

Communication in Aviation: http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:communication-in-multi-crew-flight-operations

Contributors to this page

Melanie AttanMelanie Attan

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License