Friday, July 06, 2007

Air China - Chinglish "threat to air safety"

Language barriers between Chinese pilots and western ground control staff are creating cause for concern for some in the airline industry, CNN reports. English is the internationally agreed language for airline pilots, but problems in communication are increasing the possibility of accidents. In one incident highlighted by CNN, an Air China flight from Beijing has a confused discourse with New York ground control staff.
When Air China flight 981 touched down at JFK last April there followed a confused dialogue between the pilot and the tower that could have led to disastrous consequences.

Tower: Make the right turn here at Juliet, join Alpha, hold short of Mike Alpha, Air China 9-81.
Pilot: Air China join right..err..Juliet join Alpha err hold (unintelligible) November.
Tower: OK, I’ll say it again.

Three times the tower repeated instructions, but the confusion persisted.

Tower: Air China 9-81 have they cleared you into the ramp?
Pilot: Roger. Err (unintelligible)
Tower: Have you been cleared into the ramp?
Pilot: OK, going to the ramp.
Tower: No, that was a question. Have the ramp people cleared you into the gate?
Pilot: Roger, to the gate, Air China 9-81
Tower: I’ll try it again, it’s a question. Hold your position. This is a question. Have you been cleared into your gate?
Pilot: OK, we hold here.

The frustrated controller at the tower is then heard to say: Nobody seems to speak English here today.
Air China admits there was an incident with flight 981 but blames the language used by the control tower. “He didn’t use the standard RKO language” Xu Xiukai, from the Air China English Training school, told CNN, “That’s why the pilot didn’t catch the actual meaning”.

Air China will require all its international pilots to have completed an English examination by next March. However as it stand of the 8,593 pilots who fly internationally, only 753 had taken the exam and of them only 651 had passed [source: China’s General Administration of Civil Aviation]. Even where pilots have passed the English exam, there are causes for concern as their grasp of the English language lacks a certain je ne sais quoi! And it was the French that used to create concern only a few years ago. But after many years efforts were made to force all pilots to use English. Capt. Bertrand de Courville, director of flight safety for the French national carrier explained, "Before this decision, we had in the same terminal airspace a mix of Air France flights (speaking aeronautical French) and other international flights (speaking aeronautical English)."

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