Safety on aeroplanes is being put at risk because of a poor standard of English among foreign pilots, a report has found.
Language proficiency is falling below the required international standards and there are grounds to suspect some pilots are cheating in English tests, according to the independent research commissioned by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and funded by the Department for Transport.
Rather than being examined, the report found some foreign language speakers had been granted certificates of English proficiency on “sweetheart” deals, through “handshakes” or “via friends”.
The research, by academic Dr Barbara Clark, found “alleged evidence of cheating”, whereby a candidate had passed the tests after just 10 days of studying – a “nearly impossible” achievement.
Some pilots flying in UK airspace “appear to lack the minimum proficiency in English”, the report said, while air traffic controllers outside Britain do not always have sufficient English to communicate with pilots even though they have been obliged to meet an industry standard since 2008.
It must be emphasised that “language-related miscommunication issues are as important to aviation safety as any other issue”, such as turbulence or disruptive passengers, the report’s author added.
It also recommended more language spot checks and making sure pilots and controllers used proper terminology rather than “plain language”.
The report looked at 267 incidents of miscommunication, 89 of which occurred in the UK. On one occasion, possible language difficulties were cited in a situation where a plane taxied onto the runway at a Midlands airport without clearance from the air traffic controller.
The Department for Transport said it was discussing the report with the CAA. The CAA told The Times it was studying the research and would work with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is responsible for the tests and international regulators.
Nats, the air traffic control organisation, said any mistakes were taken very seriously and investigated. The ICAO said it was developing tools to help with “proper oversight” of English language test providers.