English Language Proficiency Requirements

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English Language Proficiency Requirements

45TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 27-31 March 2006

WP No. 167

English Language Proficiency Requirements

Presented by the Executive Board


1.1 At Conference 2004, Committee C tasked the IFTACA’s Professional Legal Committee (PLC) with expanding existing IFATCA policy respecting requirements resulting from new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS), on the testing of controllers and pilots in English competence.

1.2 The need arose from the 1997 ICAO Air Navigation Commission priority recommendation (A32-16) that minimum performance standards be developed and adopted which addressed English language skill levels. Annex 1 – Personnel Licensing and Annex 10 – Aeronautical Telecommunications, was to be strengthened to enable States to take steps to ensure that air traffic control personnel and flight crews were proficient in speaking and understanding communications in the English language.

1.3 In September, 2004 ICAO hosted an International Seminar highlighting work done by the Proficiency Requirements In Common English Sub Group, (PRICESG) on which IFATCA was represented.

1.4 A working paper submitted to Committee C, Conference 2005 highlighted the conditions of the new ICAO Level 4 requirements, and made several recommendations:

  • Sufficient training must be available for current ATCOs of all English language abilities so as to be able to meet ICAO Level 4, and subsequently to retain (or improve) that competency.
  • Staff who are unable to achieve and maintain the English language requirements must have their positions protected and given opportunities to reach Level 4.
  • MA’s should encourage their Service Providers and Regulators to request further involvement by ICAO in the training and testing programme.
  • The Executive Board should liaise with other international bodies.


2.1 Determining the specific needs of the controller population is an important pre- requisite to developing an English language proficiency program. Many of our members need language-enhancing programs to bring them up to acceptable levels of proficiency prior to the target date of January 2008. It is the responsibility of the Regulator of each country (State) to ensure that language testing for air traffic controllers and (pilots) meets ICAO Annex amendments. Despite variances between countries, it is very important that a common standard to be achieved.

2.2 English Language training for air traffic controllers must be high quality. We expect industry to adapt quickly to the challenge, but it is imperative for IFATCA to have a voice in the development of programs having such an impact on our members and to take some action.

2.3 The teaching of common English as a second language is an established worldwide industry, therefore the opinion of the PRICESG was that to achieve the goals of the program, the greatest chance of success was is for States to utilize the “English as a Second Language” option. However there is a problem. Regulatory bodies may not possess expertise or resources to fulfil their responsibilities, raising concerns as to how a credible, international testing regimen can be standardized.

2.4 It was felt that the training industry itself may not be adequately prepared to conduct testing of thousands of air traffic controllers (and pilots) by 2008. ICAO is best positioned to play a key role in assisting States in implementing English language-strengthening activities, and that implementation could achieve greater success rates if it played a role.

2.5 IFATCA has become actively involved since becoming aware of the new language requirements by researching appropriate language institutions as part of our commitment to ensuring that English proficiency training will be of the highest standards. We have had input to regional language seminars, sharing our concerns and offering solutions. We have worked closely with the International Air Transport Association providing advice and input to their language proficiency program, and continue to follow its development. The Executive Board has drafted correspondence (in several languages) to the Providers of all our member MAs expressing our concerns that we have little or no indication that they have taken positive steps to address English language training for air traffic controllers in their country. Outstanding issues to be addressed before a language proficiency program will achieve its objectives were re- iterated. We used this opportunity to remind States of their crucial role in this project, and strongly encouraged them to become pro-active in developing an adequate training program without further delay.

2.6 The IFATCA Executive Board also wrote a similar-type letter to all MAs. In it, we encouraged MAs to work with their Service Providers and Regulators and to formally request a more meaningful level of involvement from them in the development of training and testing program(s), and to provide the IFATCA Executive Board with a list of issues they would like addressed and /or included in any training package(s) that will be developed.

2.7 There are outstanding issues to be addressed before IFATCA can be reasonably assured that a language proficiency program(s), regardless of the provider of such program(s) will achieve the stated goals and objectives contained in ICAO recommendations. Areas of concern include:

  • adequate educational programs addressing proficiency/competency that can be accessed by, and understood by all groups.
  • standardization of testing within each State.
  • can States to develop local procedures?
  • consequences for controllers not able to reach required levels of language proficiency?
  • when will serious training start? How long will training take?

2.7 To date we have seen positive, concrete steps taken by various organizations with respect to advancing the language proficiency initiative. Some examples include:

  • ICAO – produced Manual on the Language Proficiency Requirements (Doc 9835) in 2004; and published a detailed questionnaire designed to determine the status of compliance with language proficiency requirements, and distributed to all Civil Aviation Authorities, ANSPs, Airlines and training institutions that are or will be involved in English language proficiency testing. The responses to this survey will provide valuable information to help determine the most suitable action(s) to assist States in complying with the language provisions.
  • Eurocontrol ELPAC – English Language Proficiency for Aeronautical Communication The ELPAC test was developed by EUROCONTRO to meet ICAO requirements for air traffic controllers to demonstrate their proficiency in the English language in aeronautical communications between air traffic controllers and pilots, and between controllers and controllers. It is designed for to reflect a range of tasks undertaken in ATC operations. The focus of the test is on language rather than operational procedures.
  • IATA/Berlitz – have undertaken a joint project to develop a language proficiency program, base partly on information and input from IFATCA through the PRICE group.

There are other initiatives by various organizations, however the lack of information surrounding the industry’s progress to date is disappointing.


3.1 The introduction of the English language proficiency requirements, and their implementation date of January 2008, is an ambitious undertaking. In the academic world it would take much more time to accomplish a comprehensive strategy such as the one being considered for language proficiency training.

3.2 The need for a strategy for the development of an English language standard for air traffic control communications has been addressed (ICAO SL AN 13/48.1-02/1) and basic procedures for competency levels and testing requirements are now contained in ICAO Annexes.

3.3 Proficiency training for air traffic controllers of all language abilities must be made available in a sufficient period of time to allow the acquisition of ICAO Level 4 prior to the implementation date of January 2008. There are encouraging signs (i.e: ICAO, IATA. EUROCONTROL) that progress is being made, however IFATCA has concerns with respect to the level of commitment of many States considering the lack of participation and guidance being exhibited. To this end IFATCA has written to both its Member Associations and States with a request detailing the urgency of this project and the need for co-operation.

3.4 Time is of the essence in respect of the January 2008 deadline for compliance as recommended by ICAO. IFATCA has reminded States and its MAs of the need for action without delay.


4.1 That IFATCA continue to monitor the progress of States (and ANSPs) as they implement their plans for language proficiency requirements as recommended by ICAO, and to continue to liaise with them to ensure the end project is both timely and appropriate in addressing the needs of controllers.

4.2 That IFATCA this paper be accepted as Guidance Material.


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) www.languagetesting.com or www.actfl.org/public/articles

Association of Language Testers in Europe – www.alte.org/index

Bureau for International Language Co-ordination, NATO.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks – www.language.ca

Canadian Foreign Service Institute Oral Proficiency – www.cfsi-icse.ca/english/langschool/

Test of English for Commercial Airline Pilots – Embry Riddle University

University of Cambridge International English Language Testing System – www.ielts.org

International Second Language Proficiency Ratings (formerAustralian SLPR) www.tafe.sa.edu.au/institutes/adelaide/ells/aslpr.shtml

Michigan English Proficiency Battery and Examination for the Certificate in English (University of Michigan – www.lsa.umich.edu/eli/testing


Ordinate, Inc. – www.ordinate.com

“Test of Spoken English” by ETS – www.toefl.org

Test of English as a Foreign Language Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey USA- www.toefl.org

International Civil Aviation English Association (ICAEA).

Last Update: September 29, 2020  

April 9, 2020   984   Jean-Francois Lepage    2006    

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