People often ask about my ‘other’ job – the one that I do when I’m not being a Tour Manager i.e. mostly during the winter season. I’m a certified teacher of aviation english, at the moment working with some of the wonderful pilots at Air France. Many people wonder why pilots need to learn English, after all, one might think that they have enough to learn and think about by simply flying the aircraft!
English is the international language of aviation; for example, a French pilot flying over China will speak English to ATC on the ground, and vice versa. Both pilots and ATC must speak English to an acceptable and agreed standard as set by ICAO (The International Civil Aviation Organisation, a United Nations agency). There are six possible levels of spoken English, and the minimum level to be allowed to fly is Level 4. If a pilot achieves a Level 4 pass, He or She is allowed to fly commercially but must be re-examined every 4 years. A Level 5 Pass is re-examined every 6 years and a Level 6 is classed as being a near-native speaker and no further exams are required. The pilots that I work with at Air France are all Level 4 or greater, and my job is to try and improve their exam grade to Level 5 or 6 if possible. Of course, pilots can, and do speak to each other and the cabin crew within the flight deck in their own language, although many of the checklist and other technical items may default to English. Here’s a lovely example of my Air France colleagues at work demonstrating all of the skills mentioned above monitored by some excellent South Africa ATC (watch it in 4K if your internet is fast enough).
There is another side to the work. Air France pilots, in common with most other professional pilots around the world, make their announcements to passengers in both English and French. The overwhelming majority of these announcements will be the of the standard “Welcome on board…” variety, but sometimes can be rather more complicated. “The weather in London has deteriorated and we shall have to divert to…” or even the need to explain to passengers on board that they will need to disembark to reduce the aircraft weight so that a landing gear wheel can be changed. Ultimately, there are a wide range of emergency situation announcements that might need to be made, and these are rarely template situations. With all this in mind, I also take courses in how to make ‘better’ announcements in both French and English for First Officers that are training to become Captains, since their experience of making announcements (of any kind) is usually very limited.
Regrettably, not all airlines, or nations are as professional as Air France and the teaching and examination of English for both pilots and ATC can sometimes be rather less stringent than it should be. Below is an example of a situation where this became important (It would be a mistake to assume that all Chinese airlines struggle to this degree – many speak excellent English and work hard at it).