A European Union rule that requires English to be the official language between pilots and
air-traffic controllers has come into force – and, curiously, even applies where both parties
share a native tongue that is not English.
The rule only affects airports with over 50,000 international flights operating per year,
meaning Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez-Barajas and Barcelona’s El Prat will become ‘English-
only’, but many others, such as those in the Canary and Balearic Islands, will still be able to
choose the language they wish to speak in.
Aiming to streamline communications for maximum security, pilots and air-traffic
controllers having to speak English is not a problem, since being able to do so fluently is a
basic requirement of their job.
But pilot unions in Spain SEPLA and USCA say it is ‘ludicrous’ to require this when both
pilot and air-traffic controller are native Spanish-speakers. Captains on board Iberia, Vueling
and AirEuropa – all three being Spanish carriers and typically staffed with natives – will
have to talk to the control towers in Barcelona and Madrid, also staffed with natives, in
English.
USCA and SEPLA criticise the fact that the move ‘has not taken into account’ the criteria of
the professionals involved, and that using a language which is a foreign tongue to both rather
than the native one they share ‘is unlikely to bring about any potential air safety
improvements’.
Also, the unions say previous research by the State Air Safety Agency (AESA) has shown
that in a crisis situation where fast thinking and action is vital, it is better for the people
involved to use their mother tongue to communicate in order to avoid misunderstandings or
split-second delays that could ‘compromise security in delicate circumstances’.
USCA and SEPLA also point out the irony of a situation which means pilots from Spain can
speak Spanish to air-traffic controllers anywhere in Latin America, given that natives share
the same language, but cannot use it when speaking to each other in Spain.
“For effective communication the best solution is, without doubt, for air-traffic controllers
and pilots to use the native language they have in common,” say the unions.