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Aviation: Standards

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport (1) what risk assessment she has made of pilots flying into London airports whose English language skills are not compliant with the minimum requirements of the Civil Aviation Organisation; and if she will make a statement; (211993)

(2) if she will make a statement on the findings of the Air Accident Investigation Branch investigation into the incident of a LOT Airliner, involving language communications difficulties with air traffic control on its approach to Heathrow airport;

(3) if she will prevent any airline operators from landing at London's airports who do not comply with the International Civil Aviation Organisation's requirement for pilots to be proficient in English language; and if she will make a statement.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch investigation into LOT flight 282 on 4 June 2007 concluded that the primary cause of the incident was a single error made by the co-pilot prior to take off from Heathrow by the use of “E” instead of “W” when the longitude co-ordinates were entered into the flight management system. This led to the crew experiencing difficulties navigating the aircraft and necessitated their return to Heathrow under the guidance of air traffic control.

The AAIB report notes that the crew's difficulties were complicated by the commander of the aircraft having some difficulty comprehending and communicating with the air traffic controllers, a situation probably exacerbated by the high workload in the cockpit attendant on the navigational problems. The report suggests that the incident is indicative of problems which can arise through a lack of understanding between controllers and flight crews.

Accurate communication between flight crews and air traffic controllers is clearly a matter of the first importance to the safety of international aviation. The requirements for language proficiency for operational personnel are determined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which has traditionally required that air-ground radiotelephony communications shall be conducted in the language normally used by the station on the ground or in the English language.

In 2003, with UK support, ICAO took steps to reinforce rules on language proficiency. It set a deadline of March 2008 for proficiency in Level 4 (operational) and above English for all pilots flying international routes, and for ATC controllers serving international airports and routes. The proficiency scale ranges from Level 1 to Level 6, with guidelines published for pronunciation, fluency, structure, vocabulary, comprehension and interaction. Level 4 (operational) proficiency is considered as a minimum 'stepping stone' to higher levels.

The UK became compliant with ICAO's language proficiency requirements on 5 March 2008.

However, in recognition that not all states would be able to comply fully by March 2008, ICAO, while urging states to meet the deadline if at all possible, has allowed for a transition period from March 2008 until March 2011. The Polish Civil Aviation Office are due to specify a date by which they will comply with the ICAO requirement for English language proficiency.

I naturally hope that all ICAO signatory states become compliant with the language proficiency requirements as soon as possible. As ICAO Level 4 (operational) proficiency in English is not yet binding on States, however, the UK, as an ICAO signatory, cannot make this a requirement for granting permission to foreign airlines to operate to UK airports.

I understand however that evaluation of this incident by UK air navigation services provider, NATS, has identified to a number of learning points which have been incorporated into NATS' “Training for Unusual and Emergency Circumstances” package which all controllers are required to complete annually.

The European Aviation Safety Agency is consulting on its draft implementing rules for operations and flight crew licensing from May to November 2008. These proposals include legal requirements on language proficiency.