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Air China 981 “Who was to blame?”

You may have heard of the miscommunication incident that occured between a JFK controller and Air China 981 back in 2006. The plane was taxiing to the gate and could not understand the instructions given to him.

When you read the Youtube comments about the incident it is clear that most people put blame on the pilot, saying that he doesn’t understand English, or speak it very well, but was he 100% to blame?

Aviation phraseology around the world differs. The USA FAA uses very different phraseology to the ICAO international standard. In addition, some countries in the world do not use English as the primary language for communication. China and, some South American countries and Spain do most, if not all their communication in their native language. This causes big problems for non-native pilots who fly into these countries, but also for pilots with bad English who fly into only English speaking countries.

English is the international language for aviation, and yes, the Air China pilot did have extremely poor English, but the controller did not help the situation by shouting at the pilot and using non-standard phraseology and statements as questions. I am a native English speaker and have lived outside the UK for 20 years and I know that it is very common for people to raise their volume when speaking when they feel the receiver doesn’t understand, but this really has no positive result and actually adds unnecessary stress to the situation.

Watch the video and try and see the situation from both sides. The controller is working at one of the busiest airports in the world, possibly instructing up to 10 planes at the same time; and the pilot who has probably received very little English training, and is now facing a controller using non-standard phraseology.

About Rachel

I started off my aviation English career in Hong Kong, where I worked as an English specialist with Cathay Pacific. I was responsible for designing and developing aviation English resources for ground crew, cabin crew and pilots. I also co-designed the CX language proficiency test for licensing purposes. In 2008 I moved to Jerez de La Frontera in Spain where I headed the aviation English department at Flight Training Europe. I developed foundation aviation English courses to prepare abinitio pilots for their ATPL courses. The ICAO English proficiency test which I designed was the first to be approved by the UKCAA. I am now in charge of content development at Practice ICAO English. We provide interactive and engaging E-learning aviation English courses, as well as many free lessons for our growing community of pilots and controllers.

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