What is Aviation English?

As a matter of fact, everyone knows the answer but not so many people understand it. What is the real meaning behind it? In most cases, it’s associated with phraseology but aviation English doesn’t rely solely on it. So what precisely is it? Let me share my opinion on it.

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English for Aviation – Two Perspectives

First of all, let’s begin with a broader meaning of this term; “aviation” implies all the people who work in the aviation-related areas, such as aircrew, flight operation officers, air traffic control, maintenance, airline passenger service assistance, ramp agents etc. ICAO language proficiency requirements are dedicated exclusively for two professions – pilots and air traffic controllers. Their communication has undoubtedly an impact on the safety of a flight and, therefore, the discourse should be precise and clear. It is divided into two sections which mutually complement each other if a certain English proficiency level is achieved. These two groups are ICAO standardized phraseology and plain English.

Aviation English

ICAO Standardized Phraseology

The former will be taken into consideration in the first place, the latter will be covered in the next paragraph. I believe that most of those people who aren’t in any way involved in aviation apart from an occasional summer or business flight bear in mind the standardized phraseology as the core of the language that is spoken on a regular basis. Yes, it’s a fact. Phraseology was coined to improve communication in aviation; the messages are short and they give a huge sense of control over an ongoing situation. They help avoid ambiguation and are perfectly suited for the predictable situations.  According to ICAO document, here’s the aim of it:

“The purpose of phraseologies is to provide clear, concise, unambiguous lanugage to communicate message of a routine situation.” – ICAO Doc. 9835

Please stop here. Read the quotation from the ICAO document again; can you see a keyword in this sentence which shows the imperfect nature of standardized phraseology?

Think about it for a short moment while I’ll give another guideline hidden in another quotation from the same resource:

“However, while ICAO standardized phraseology has been developed to cover many circumstances, it cannot address all pilot and controller communication needs. It is widely acknowledged by operational and linguistic experts that no set of standardized phraseologies can fully describe all possible circumstances and responses.” – ICAO Doc. 9835

Plain Language Proficiency

Routine. It is the word I would put the biggest emphasis on. As long as a scenario goes according to a plan, the standardized phraseology should be, more or less, enough to cover all the language needs. On the other hand, it’s a non-routine situation that may be (ad it surely is!) a trigger to instantly use plain English. When something unpredictable happens, you need to rely on your linguistic skills and intelligence to communicate effectively and make often a split-second decision. If you need a comprehensive ebook on health vocabulary in an aviation-oriented environment, click here to download a free handout. But now, let’s check how does ICAO perceive the general language. Here is a precise definition:

“Plain language – The spontaneous, creative, and non-coded use of a given language.” – ICAO Doc. 9835

Yes, linguistic spontaneity, creativity, and non-coded use of English here are highly demanded. Why is the mixture of ICAO standardized phraseology and plain English important? Listen to this short fragment of an authentic talk and draw your own conclusion if a rigorous law concerning regular English examinations that were implied by ICAO since 2008 has it common sense explanation. I believe it’s the best thing that could happen to improve safety in aviation. Please pay attention to the full fragment; don’t stop in the middle.

Miscommunication Took Its Toll…

I know the matter of taking English exams every 3 or 6 years especially to non-native English speakers may arise controversy among pilots and air traffic controllers but let’s face the conspicuous facts:

In 1977 at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, in a runway collision, between a KLM Boeing 747 and Pan Am Boeing 747, 583 people lost their lives. The miscommunication was the main factor in this tragedy as the investigation showed.

In 1990 Avianca, flight 052, suffered fuel exhaustion; the message from a cockpit didn’t describe adequately the situation onboard to the control tower. As a result, out of 149 passengers, 65 were fatalities.

In 1996 a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin 76 and Saudi Arabian Boeing 747-100 collided mid-air. 349 people on board both planes were killed.  Only one person out of three in Kazakh cockpit understood the English language.

To conclude, almost 1000 people were killed because of miscommunication between the cockpit and tower. There has been numerous incidents and near misses. I strongly believe you are aware now of the importance of the regular revision and study; your knowledge can have a direct influence on the safety in aviation especially if you are an English as a second language learner. Would you like to fly with a plane piloted by a crew whose linguistic comprehension level is comparable to an Air China 981 example presented above? I wouldn’t.


Aviation English is a unique combination of ICAO standardized phraseology and plain English language. Neither of these as a stand-alone area would be desired in that niche to communicate effectively. ICAO standardized phraseology works fine until an unexpected turn of events happens; therefore, a wide spectrum of plain language can help to give a full view of a non-routine situation. Feel free to contact me if you need assistance in any aviation English learning aspects. I’d be happy to give you a piece of advice via email or write another blog post. I’m here to help you.

ICAO English for Aviation