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English proficiency can play a role in airlines’ survival

Vu Van, CEO of ELSA, discusses the importance of English proficiency aptitude for the safety of aircraft, and how it can even boost employee retention.

The old aviation adage for safe flight reads ‘Aviate, Navigate, Communicate’, and ensuring the safety of passengers and employees through these three pillars stands as the number one priority for airlines, air traffic controllers and ground crews alike.

However, communication errors and inappropriate phraseology remain present factors in safety-related incidents across the U.S. and around the world. Communication is important in any aviation-related role, whether it be air traffic controllers giving instructions to pilots, or cabin crews ensuring a high-level of customer satisfaction.

As ‘Aviation English’ remains the official language of the skies, effective proficiency training can not only prove beneficial to safety, but an attractive proposition for would-be candidates looking for an airline or airport to hang their hat on.

Vu Van, CEO of ELSA
Vu Van, CEO of ELSA

Communication is Critical

In 1951, the International Civil Aviation Organization recommended English as the de facto language of the skies, and it has remained that way ever since. In fact, English language proficiency (ELP) for aviation employees in the 21st century is not only important, but mandatory, as enshrined by the ICAO in 2008, who mandated a certain level of English proficiency was required by employees.

Particularly in critical stages of flight, airline pilots, first officers and cabin crew need to communicate clear and concise instructions that can be understood by all. A review of around 5,000 aviation accident reports from 1990 to 2012 uncovered a number of cases where language appeared a contributing factor in the chain of events leading to a disaster. An example of this was a Boeing 777 crash into a seawall at San Francisco airport, which was due to the nonstandard communication and coordination regarding the use of autothrottle and autopilot. The Skybrary repository for aviation safety also notes that serious incidents have arisen due to the varied ELP in verbal communication.

Pilots use short verbal signals such as relaying their call sign using the phonetic alphabet, and cabin crews articulate the pre-flight safety demonstration using English as their tool. Simply put, English isn’t just the difference between your plane landing in Tennessee instead of Tallahassee but could play a role in airlines’ survival.

English Proficiency in Recruitment and Retention

The aviation industry faces a retention problem. Only 60% of flight attendant new hires make it through training, and only 50% of those are still at the airline after their first year.

Although cabin crew jobs are in high demand, the long and costly training programs deter many from stepping foot inside a plane, and the benefits once an employee is at the airline can be futile compared to the long hours they are working. A Lorman study found that retention rates at companies rise 30-50% with strong learning cultures, and 86% of millennials would be kept from leaving a job if training and development were offered by an employer.

A robust proficiency of the English language can be a useful instrument in an aviation employee’s repertoire: Improving the English skills of employees can release them of the linguistic shackles inhibiting them from socialising with a crew member out of hours or engaging in small talk with a passenger. An airline that invests in its employees increases their ability to recruit and retain talent, and with an estimated 18,000 pilots needing to be replaced over the next seven years, they are abilities that will be in record demand.

A high level of English language proficiency in all corners of the aviation industry, much like the now extinct Concorde, has a streamlining effect to the spoken communication of instructions and information crucial to a safe and seamless journey.

At any given time, an average of over 8,000 planes freely through the flight corridors of the world, but without the proficient communication needed to maintain the safe passage of people, an airline can soon lose its head in the clouds.

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