Language and Cultural Barriers in the Aviation Industry

One of the many facets of the Human Factor is the presence of a multicultural and diverse taskforce in the Aviation Industry. It became more evident over the last years migration move people around countries. Besides that, flying became more affordable for every class of the society. Demand for international travel has also approximated ports and exposed people in different areas to many different cultures and languages.
Unfortunately, language barriers and cultural differences can have disastrous results.

Cultural Differences in Aviation

Current international efforts towards safety and efficiency in aviation have led to an increased requirement for multi-cultural understanding, particularly in the area of human factors. It must be recognized that nations may approach the same technical or commercial opportunities from very different perspectives due to basic cultural differences. While these different perspectives may not be right or wrong when viewed in the context of an individual country, at appropriate times it is necessary for professionals from different cultures to recognize and appreciate the regulatory parameters of another country. This is especially important when attempting bilateral or multilateral cooperation and when dealing with issues, such as operational safety, which cannot be compromised.
• Language
• Behavior
• Customs
• Values
• Beliefs
• Attitudes

Four Dimensions in Cultural Difference:

1. Power Distance
2. Individualism-Collectivism
3. Masculinity-Femininity
4. Uncertainty Avoidance

Case Studies

Avianca Flight 52

One example comes from the Avianca Flight 52 on 25 January 1990. The Avianca flight had 73 fatalities when it crashed in New York without fuel. (Aviation Safety Network - Avianca Flight 52)

(Video embedded from YouTube on 26 September 2009)

Various sources mention the language and cultural barrier that might have contributed to the Avianca crash. The Wikipedia website states:

The NTSB report on the accident determined the cause as pilot error due to the crew never declaring a fuel emergency to air traffic control as per IATA guidelines. The crew was reported to have asked for "priority" landing which, due to language differences in English and Spanish, can be interpreted as an emergency to the Spanish-speaking pilots but not to the English-speaking Air Traffic Controllers. This may have caused some confusion amongst the pilots when the ATC confirmed their priority status.1

The New York Times said “Investigators do not yet know why during those final hours the crew never made clear to air traffic controllers how desperate their situation had become. With all three cockpit crew members dead, that may never be known.” Although a little unconvinced, Smith on the website states:

As many others have done in the nearly 20 years since the accident, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes as to why it occurred. He ultimately puts the blame on what we'll call "cultural issues." He suggests that the Colombian pilots, due to a culturally imbued deference to authority, were disinclined to challenge the instructions of the air traffic controllers. It's a fascinating and provocative idea.2

Air Crash Legacy x Gol Flight 1907

Curiously, after the midair crash of 29 September 2006 of the Embraer Legacy and the Gol flight 1907 with 154 fatalities, the International Pilot Association (IFALPA) in its Brazilian branch, issued guidelines for the improvement of the English level used by the flight controllers. (G1, 2007) The website (2007) informs that “pilots had difficulties with the language”, referencing to that air crash.3

(Video embedded from YouTube on 28 September 2009)

The point is that with the internationalization of the workforce in many areas of the Aviation Industry, we might be inspired to analyse the issue of safety under the spotlight of cultural and language differences.


At airports, we would consider analysing the operations environment. As a foreigner myself working in the airport environment in New Zealand for some years now, the department I most struggled with was the operations in the AOC section. AOC is the acronym for Airport Operations Control. More precisely, as a Load Controller/Dispatcher, I was faced with the constant remind of “your accent” and annoyed loadmasters who clearly showed impatience for repeating numbers over the radio. I clearly identify myself with the possibility of the Colombian pilots (Avianca flight 52) feeling uncomfortable with the prospect of asking or explaining their real situation. In a clear path to unsafe procedure, I remember once making an assumption of numbers in a read back due to the fact that I did not want to upset the loadmaster, a native of the UK!
This situation is shared with many of my fellow colleagues who come from other countries. I share with you here a couple of opinions in a little chat I have had with two of my colleagues just recently.

(Video embedded from YouTube on 15 September 2009)

The Impact of Cultural Gaps

The majority of aviation human factors research today is conducted by institutions in North America and Western Europe. As such, much of this research has centred on U.S. and European operations and operators. Consequently, knowledge about behaviour, human-computer interaction, cognition, and decision making are typically sourced from operators in Western cultures. On the other hand, pilots from non-Western countries may have different attitudes and expectations towards crewmembers’ responsibilities and roles. Moreover, there are significant differences in cognition and behaviour between those from non-Western and Western cultures.

With the growth in global air traffic, the frequency of multicultural interactions between and among pilots and air traffic controllers will increase. These differences will have global implications for training, safety and communications in aviation operations. This brings us to the point that we must recognise nations may, and probably do, approach opportunities and problems from quite different perspectives because of their basic language and cultural differences. Naturally enough, individual nations may feel that their point of view is correct, especially for them, and that also provides the best answer. Such a situation can tend to polarize the participants in any discussion and can lead to total inaction or to ineffective and unsatisfactory compromises. Either of these results is completely unacceptable to anyone interested in aviation safety.

Overcoming the Barriers

A way to overcome limitations or barriers in communication among people of different backgrounds and idioms is to attach to procedures and regulations. Radio communication, the seven-headed monster for many, must me kept to simple terms; slangs eliminated and read back a habit. From personal experience and from those shortly interviewed by me, what is paramount is to insist in safety. Always, even when repetition, confirmation and double checks seem to be odd for native speakers. Although the recommendation is for tech and in-flight crew, the Australian Civil Safety Authority resumes what is valid for the industry in general: “Being mindful of each spoken word and how it might be interpreted is something that must be recognised as a vital component of crew co-ordination and effectiveness.”

1. WIKIPEDIA (2009). Avianca Flight 52. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 15 September 2009.
2. Cushman, J. H. (1990). Avianca Flight 52: The Delays That Ended in Disaster. Retrieved from The New York Times on 15 September 2009.
3. (2007). Órgão alerta pilotos sobre fraco inglês de controladores do Brasil. Retrieved from on 15 September 2009 (google translation)
4. Retrieved on 16 September 2009. Smith, P. (2008). Ask the pilot.
5. Aviation Safety Network (2009). Avianca Flight 52. Retrieved from Aviation Safety Network on 16 September 2009.
6. Australian Government Civil Aviation Safety Authority (2007) Good communication a key to safety. Retrieved from CASA Australia on 16 September 2009.
7. YouTube 2008 EXCLUSIVO! Últimos diálogos dos pilotos do Legacy, acidente GOL1907. Retrieved from YouTube on 16 September 2009/ (Black box conversation in English/Portuguese TV show)

Want to know more?

This article shows that the pilots of the Legacy Jet had problems with the idiom when in contact with the ATC. (Google translated)
Photos of the Gol Flight 1907 crash area.

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