Accents as Safety Issues Part I: Aviation

When can an accent be a safety issue? The two most obvious examples are in the fields of aviation and healthcare. In this month’s column, accent-related safety issues in the aviation industry will be described. Next month, safety issues that occur in the healthcare field, due to accents, will be examined.                                                                                                                                                         
While “English is the unofficial international language of aviation (CNS Outlook, 1996), the command of the English language for many foreign pilots is deficient, compounded by dialects, accents, and semantic misinterpretations” (“Barriers to Effective Communication: Implications for the Cockpit,” by Robert Baron, The Aviation Consulting Group, AirlineSafety.Com). In 2007, fewer than ten percent of China’s pilots had met the English standards that had been set by the aviation industry (“China demands its pilots speak better English,” June 19, 2007, During a twelve month period between 2006 and 2007, India sent 20 foreign pilots home, since their poor English skills raised safety concerns (“India ejects pilots for poor English,” February 15, 2007,        

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) found that “nearly 70 percent of the safety reports it receives speak of communication problems and poor English.” The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) received a directive from the ICAO mandating that English proficiency tests be given to pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC) personnel by March, 2008.  ATC officials have said that anxious moments are caused both by issues related to language and to accents. One ATC official, who requested anonymity, stated that while most of their interactions with pilots are in codes, it takes a long time to communicate with foreign pilots due to their “incomprehensible accents” which frequently causes “traffic jams and near-misses.” While this is a global problem, it is particularly serious in India, which depends so much on foreign pilots (“DGCA asks foreign pilots to learn English,” by Bhargavi Kerur, August 21, 2006, 

According to J.B. Strother, “Communication problems have contributed, directly or indirectly, to some of the most disastrous aviation accidents in history.” When past accidents were analyzed, some common factors were identified. They included phrasing that is confusing, call signs that are similar, numerous linguistic issues, and speech that is heavily accented and poorly enunciated (“Communication failures lead to airline disasters,” August, 6, 2002, IEEE Xplore Digital Library).These are some examples of disasters that have resulted from those types of communication problems: “In 1977, at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, heavy accents and improper terminology among a Dutch KLM crew, an American Pan Am crew, and a Spanish air traffic controller led to the worst aviation disaster in history, in which 583 passengers perished” (“Barriers to Effective Communication: Implications for the Cockpit,” by Robert Baron, The Aviation Consulting Group, AirlineSafety.Com.). “In January of 1990, the pilot of an Avianca Boeing 707 passenger jet from Colombia flew over JFK and requested to land, citing a fuel shortage. A flight control operator could not understand the pilot’s heavy Spanish accent. The plane crashed killing 73 passengers and crew [members]. Inability to communicate was cited as the main reason behind a passenger jet’s crash with a freight plane that was landing in New Delhi in 1996, killing 349.” (“English Language Tests for Pilots,” December 23, 2008, Those tragedies did not have to happen.                                                                   

A career as a pilot or air traffic controller may not be in your future plans. However, you might have an accent that is preventing you from communicating as effectively as you would like to in your current job. You may be searching for a new job or career, or perhaps you are hoping for a promotion. Participation in an accent modification program that is conducted by a speech-language pathologist can give you the tools that you need to move forward.