Aviation English Language Proficiency

Dr Dominique Estival’s research on English language proficiency in aviation began in 2008, with her first publication in 2009. Dominique worked on a MARCS project, with the flight simulator, in 2012-2013, which lead to more publications and to her Aviation English book, published in 2016. Analysis of the flight simulator data is now complete, with 2 papers published on the audio data so far (2015, 2020), and one paper in progress on the flight sim data. Work on the recordings at international airports started in 2017 which resulted in one paper published (2019), with another one recently submitted. The work on the prototype for a mobile speech app for student pilots to practice radio communication was started in 2018 and completed in 2019. The current project, funded by Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), started in 2020 and is expected to be completed in December 2021.

Radio communication between pilots and Air Traffic Control, using a codified form of English, is crucial to aviation safety and efficiency. Twenty years into the future, 40% of the predicted 635,000 new pilots will come from Asia and will need to learn Aviation English. The research aims to improve training and prevent miscommunication, by analysing radio communication errors and identifying contributing factors such as workload, speech rate or accent. Research was conducted on data from flight simulator experiments with pilots, and from recordings at international airports. The current CASA-funded project will deliver a new training and testing package for aviation language in Australia.

This work has tangible impact for the Australian aviation industry as well as internationally. Our research on ATC-Pilot communication is included in training materials from the CASA and impacts Australian pilots and air traffic controllers, flying schools, and Aviation English Language Proficiency assessors. CASA interviewed Estival and featured our research in their 2019 pilot training video and accompanying material Safety Behaviours. Internationally, the work has contributed to clarifying aviation communication. Until 2017, Air Traffic Controllers sometimes incorrectly used the word ‘CONFIRM’ to make a correction. Following our research, the definition of ‘CONFIRM’ has changed to ‘I request verification of message’, which removes any possible confusion. Our book is referenced in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)’s Working Papers. The flow on effect improves aviation safety for the 108 million passengers flying annually in Australia and the 4.6 billion air passengers around the world. More recently, our work is influencing the language testing of all pilots, native as well as non-native English speakers, though the new training and testing program for Aviation English Language Assessors, which is expected to serve as an example to other English-speaking countries.

Dr Estival was approached by CASA to submit a tender for an AELP training and testing package, which is being developed in collaboration with the Language Testing Research Centre at the University of Melbourne (2020-2021). Estival is running the trialling of the tests with pilots and flight instructors and has initiated CASA’s roll-out of a stakeholder engagement plan. Western supported Dr Estival in the tender and contract process.