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English Language Proficiency Requirements

Updated: Jan 11

English Language Proficiency Requirements
English Language Proficiency Requirements

Description This article outlines standards and recommended practices, as of early 2021, for aircraft pilots and air traffic controllers to attain one of three recognised levels of English language proficiency (ELP). In many cases, specific language proficiency is required to comply with licence qualifications. The article focuses on relevant International Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards and recommended practices and the European Union’s ELP adoption decisions. Standardisation of ELP requirements mitigates known risks of accidents in many types of flight operations, including business aviation and commercial air transportation between nations or regions. Benefits from standard-setting include fully understood communications between pilots and controllers, despite distracting non-standard words and phrases. High-level proficiency also enhances situational awareness through controller interactions and monitoring of surrounding air traffic communications. Background For 70 years, ICAO has analyzed risks involving linguistic issues, raised awareness of systemic risks and pursued mitigations. In 2011–2021, ICAO and other stakeholders began to refine first-generation ELP standards and recommended practices.

ICAO set its first deadline — March 2008 — for ICAO Member States, planning for ELP standards to take effect at Level 4, Level 5 or Level 6 for all pilots flying international routes and all air traffic controllers serving international airports and routes. States unable to meet the first deadline were granted time to implement the acceptable language proficiency levels by March 2011. By 2013, ICAO reported that some Member States had serious difficulty and called on other nations to assist them.

ELP involves both native and non-native English speakers. According to ICAO, the burden for improving this aspect of aeronautical communications should not be seen as falling solely upon non-native English speakers.

Its Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (Doc 9835), states: “Native speakers of English, too, have a fundamentally important role to play in the international efforts to increase communication safety.”

The following bullet points list basic concepts and expectations from FCL.055 Language Proficiency, a source frequently referenced by ICAO, EU and UK CAA requirements:

  • Aeroplane, helicopter, powered-lift and airship pilots required to use the radio telephony shall not exercise the privileges of their licences and ratings unless they have a language proficiency endorsement on their licence in either English or the language used for radio communications involved in the flight. The endorsement shall indicate the language, the proficiency level and the validity date.

  • The applicant for a language proficiency endorsement shall demonstrate, in accordance with Appendix 2 … at least an operational level of language proficiency both in the use of phraseologies and plain language.

  • At the operational level, the applicant shall demonstrate the ability to:

  • Communicate effectively in voice-only and in face-to-face situations;

  • Communicate on common and work-related topics with accuracy and clarity;

  • Use appropriate communicative strategies to exchange messages and to recognise and resolve misunderstandings in a general or work-related context;

  • Handle successfully the linguistic challenges presented by a complication or unexpected turn of events which occurs within the context of a routine work situation or communicative task with which they are otherwise familiar; and,

  • Use a dialect or accent which is intelligible to the aeronautical community.

  • Intervals for reevaluation of a pilot’s language-proficiency license endorsement depends on the pilot’s date of endorsement for demonstrating Level 4 (Operational Level), Level 5 (Extended Level) or Level 6 (Expert Level) proficiency, as follows:

  • Four years, if the level demonstrated is operational level;

  • Six years, if the level demonstrated is extended level; and,

  • Formal evaluation is not required for applicants who demonstrate expert level (i.e., native and very proficient non-native speakers with a dialect or accent intelligible to the international aeronautical community).