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The Language of Air Travel

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A commercial aircraft prepares to land over a city.
The Language of Air Travel
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Believe it or not – Aviation English is one of the most in-demand forms of English around the world. Why? Because English is the language of the skies.

The International Civil Aviation Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations. In 2003, the organization set a deadline of March 2008 for pilots and air traffic controllers at international airports to pass English proficiency exams. A high level knowledge of English continues to be required in international aviation today.

Some form of Aviation English is commonly used by many people working in the industry. But pilots and air traffic controllers must also learn a special form of English to communicate with each other by radio and -- more recently -- by computer. This coded language is a combination of technical terms and plain English. For example, the term “Roger” means “message received” and “Wilco” means “I will comply.” The good news is that there are only around 300 such terms.

Aviation English differs from Standard English in a few other important ways. For example, it typically avoids question forms and negative forms. There is also almost no use of modal verbs, such as the word “can.” And, since this language is made of short, direct commands and responses, subject pronouns, such as “you” and “I,” are not used.

Passengers walk through a busy international airport.
Passengers walk through a busy international airport.

Few pilots know this specialized language better than Clarence “Clyde” Romero.

A native of New York City, he worked as a pilot for 38 years before retiring in 2015. He began his career in the U.S. Air Force, first as a pilot then a flight instructor. Later, he became a commercial airline pilot and captain with Piedmont Airlines, followed by U.S. Airways and American Airlines.

Clyde Romero now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He joins us by phone to tell us about aviation communication and some of his experiences as an active pilot.

Mr. Romero – thanks so much for speaking with us today.

CLYDE ROMERO: No problem.

AB: Can you start by telling us a little bit about the language of pilots and air traffic controllers?

CLYDE ROMERO: OK, there’s a phonetic alphabet that you have to be familiar with. So, in other words, you never say “a” over the radio, you say, “Alpha.” You never say “z” over the radio, you say “Zulu.” So, you have to be familiar with the phonetic alphabet, so that if you have to spell something out, that’s how you spell it.

You’re very specific when you say numbers and when you speak because you have to make sure the other person really understands it. You would say “niner” instead of “nine,” and then, if you had to say “19,” you don’t say “19” over the radio, you say “Roger that. It’s one-nine.”

AB: OK, great. So the alphabet is phonetic and numbers are said individually. Give us an example of a message or communication between a pilot and air traffic controller.

CLYDE ROMERO: I’ll give you an example. You could be on a gate, saying, “Roger. This is American Airlines 551, requesting pushback, Delta 21, LaGuardia.” So he [the air traffic controller] knows what flight number you are, what gate you’re at, you want a pushback, and you’re going to LaGuardia [Airport]. ​

Airline Captain Clyde Romero
Airline Captain Clyde Romero

AB: OK. So, there is a lot of information in very few words. Could you give examples of where English language challenges may play out on the job?

CLYDE ROMERO: The biggest challenge that people who are -- where English is not their primary language -- is that, in the aviation field, people tend to talk fast. And, unless you have the ear for it, you’ll miss a lot. Even people who English is their normal language, we’ll have people say, “Say again,” and that’s a normal term that pilots use all the time. So, if you can imagine somebody where English is not their primary language and people are talking fast, you can see how things could get missed.​ And, where this is really important is during emergencies."

AB: So, given the speed and technical nature of the language, do you have any suggestions or encouragement for non-native English speakers who are interested in the field?

CLYDE ROMERO: Aviation terms and phrases is a language unto itself.

I would recommend that they listen to air traffic control people. They have numerous places where you can listen in on the radio and how they talk and how they interact. And, it’s like anything else. It’s a foreign language. So, how do you learn a foreign language? You start hearing it and you start mimicking it, and then you learn about it.

AB: Great! Now – every job has humorous moments. Are there any humorous stories that involved miscommunication from your time as an airline pilot?

CLYDE ROMERO: Yeah, well, I’ll give you a story. We were going into L.A. – Los Angeles. And there’s an arrival called the La Jolla Arrival. But, when you look at it, it’s spelled with a J – it’s spelled J-O-L-L-A. Okay, so, we’re going into L.A. and I’m flying the airplane and the other guy [pilot] is on the radios and he’s never been into L.A. and we’re on the La Jolla Arrival.

But he said, “Well, we’re on the La-JOLL-a Arrival.” Well, air traffic control said, “Well, out here in California, we say our Js like Hs. You’re on the La-HOY-a arrival.”

So, I picked up the radio and said, “Oh, really? So it’s Hanuary, Hune and Huly out here?” So after I said that, naturally, I’m not the only one on the radio. There’s Delta, American, Eastern – everybody else. And they said, 'Wow, American, you got him good there, didn’t you?' So that’s a true story."

Passengers relax during a flight.
Passengers relax during a flight.

AB: Now that’s a good one! So, when you speak to air traffic control, all of the other airlines can hear your radio talking.

CLYDE ROMERO: Yeah, when you’re on center frequency, there could be as many as two or three hundred airplanes on that same frequency, so you’re hearing everybody talk along with yourself. So what that does to you, it builds situation awareness around you [about] what's going on.

AB: Just out of curiosity, how many messages might you hear in one minute?

CLYDE ROMERO: In one minute, probably 50. If it’s busy, it could be more than that. And a lot of times you don’t have the time to respond. If they say, “American 785, turn right, heading 250, break. Delta 521, descend and maintain 2000 feet. Eastern 521 you’re clear to approach runway 13 LaGuardia, break.” And that’s what you hear. That’s exactly how fast they will talk. And you will not have time to respond. Any of the big airports, 95 percent of the time, you will not have a chance to respond. You will just do it."

AB: Mr. Romero, thanks again for speaking with us.

CLYDE ROMERO: OK, great. I’m glad I could be of assistance.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you work in or are you interested in working in the aviation field? Write to us in the Comments section below or visit our Facebook page.


Helpful Words and Terms

air traffic control (ATC) – a system through which workers on the ground give instructions by radio to aircraft pilots
altitude n. the height of something (such as an airplane) above sea level
arrivaln. the act of coming to or reaching an airport
break – a term used to note separation between parts of a message ​
cabin n. the part of an airplane where the passengers sit
center frequencyn. the central radio communications used by pilots and air traffic controllers
clearance n. official permission for a pilot or airplane to do something
crew n. the group of people who operate an airplane, train or ship
gate –​ n. refers to the place (inside or outside an airport) for departure or arrival
land v. to return (an aircraft) to the ground after a flight
mayday – a distress signal, preferably spoken three times; a word used to call for help when an airplane is in danger
over – a term used in radio communications to show that a message is complete
pushback n. the movement of an airplane from a parking spot, usually with help from a specialized ground vehicle
runway n. a long strip of ground where aircraft take off and land
Roger – means: “I have received all of your last message”
say again – means: “Repeat all, or the following part, of your last message”
stand by – means: “Please wait”
takeoff n. the moment when an aircraft leaves the ground and begins to fly
taxiing n. movement of an airplane at low speed on wheels along the ground
Wilco – means: “I will comply” ​

A pilot and captain fly an aircraft.
A pilot and captain fly an aircraft.


Finding the Right Program

Any good Aviation English training program should contain activities that address six language skill areas: pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and interactions.

Types of activities the program should have:

1. Interactive listening exercises. These exercises should make the learners give spoken responses.

2. Information exchange and role-play activities.

3. Speaking practice for vocabulary and grammar (structure).

4. Using tools (such as charts) and numerical data (tables and displays) to make students speak in a way that mirrors the work environment of pilots and air traffic controllers.

5. Group problem solving activities.

Source: ICAO

Aviation English Exams

Aviation professionals are required to take English proficiency exams every few years. ICAO divides English proficiency into 6 levels. Pilots and air traffic controllers must maintain at least ICAO Level 4.

There are two possible exams:

ELPAC – English Language Proficiency for Aeronautical Communication. This one meets the ICAO standards and language proficiency requirements.

TEA – Test of English for Aviation. Mayflower College in Britain designed this test, though it is not endorsed by ICAO.

Your aviation school decides which of these exams you must take.