In each country, however, the air traffic control system is divided into areas that provide different types of services according to the country’s needs and operational capacity. This difference in personnel division makes the group of operators who must be proficient in English vary depending on the contact with foreign pilots and crew. In spite of this variation, in all these areas, the contact with en-route pilots is made via radiofrequency calls, which are guided and restricted by specific regulations. In Brazil, even though they are not totally isolated areas, there are different and specific radiofrequencies to deal with the various issues related to aviation safety, for instance, area control, approach control, and meteorological service, related not only to the phases of flights, but also to the type of service provided. Each of these areas is responsible for one single aspect of the Brazilian airspace safety. Among them, the meteorological service aimed at en-route aircraft, called VOLMET, is responsible for providing weather information through radiotelephony calls to any aircraft that requires it inside Brazil’s Flight Information Region (Brasil, 2015). Since this service is also available for international flights, the language employed in such cases follows the determination of ICAO – English or ground team’s mother language –, and the phraseology established by DECEA, the Brazilian Department of Airspace Control (Fernandez, 2014).
Considering that the VOLMET service involves radiotelephony communication and crucial information on significant weather phenomena, a question can be raised regarding if the operators engaged in this area were not also supposed to be proficient in English, since miscommunication in this context can also lead to serious accidents and incidents involving one or more aircraft (ICAO, 2010). In accordance with this notion and following the guidelines of ICAO, DECEA also decreed, in 2003, that the operators of Meteorological Surveillance Centers in Brazil (where VOLMET stations are installed) should also be proficient in the English language, being classified at least as level 4 in a proficiency scale ranging from 1 to 6 created by ICAO. The descriptors of Annex I in the tests’ regulations state that
Proficient speakers shall: a) communicate effectively in voice-only (telephone/radiotelephone) and in face-to face situations; b) communicate on common, concrete and work-related topics with accuracy and clarity; c) use appropriate communicative strategies to exchange messages and to recognize and resolve misunderstandings (e.g. to check, confirm or clarify information) in a general or work-related context. (Ковтун & Гудманян, 2014, p. 4).
From my personal experience of four years working at Curitiba’s Meteorological Surveillance Center, I realized that even though there is this need of a clear and unambiguous communication between VOLMET and pilots, there is not much effort put into training people to meet ICAO’s demand, as compared to the context of Air Traffic Control. Therefore, this paper aims at presenting the impact of a long term lack of attention given to this crucial service to air navigation regarding specifically the non-English proficient operators in the Meteorological Surveillance Center of Curitiba.
When ICAO established the “ideal level” of English proficiency for operators involved in international flight activities in 2003, a Proficiency Examination was also created. This test, called EPLIS – English Proficiency Language Examination was supposed to be both the incentive and the way of assessing the language knowledge of each operator, while a paid English course was being offered. In this examination, the operators were tested in listening and speaking skills related to their specific working areas in individual interviews that were scheduled according to the proficiency level of the operators – the higher the level, the more time it would take until the next examination, until the maximum level, 6, which required no more assessment. In 2013, however, the online English classes were canceled with no clear justification and the examination was restricted to air traffic controllers, who also had, at that time, and still have available to them the CTP010, an English course organized by the Brazilian Air Force twice a year which aims to develop their linguistic proficiency in the English language. This course also provides a review on some important concepts in aviation English not only for the specific function performed by the Area Control Center operators, but also for air traffic controllers from other sectors. Although a question can be raised regarding if the type of service provided by VOLMET has recently changed or if language requirements were abolished for the military meteorologists, there is no evidence of such significant changes in any regulation.
Coincidentally, from what I have experienced at Curitiba’s Meteorological Surveillance Center, there was an increase, in the four years I have been working there, in the number of international calls, especially those whose request was supposed to be done to the Area Control Center, for it was not related to meteorological information. The recurrence of this type of situation, which requires not only the use of phraseology but also the ability to tell pilots what is the right procedure for that specific request, called attention of Captain Luiz Claudio Fernandez Junior, one of the officers who work at the center as a weather forecaster and, in 2014, he and I prepared an assessment test regarding international calls for the operators, which was published in his article entitled A língua inglesa no serviço VOLMET (The English language in the VOLMET service) (2014). This test included common situations guided by the standard phraseology as well as non-standard ones, which required the operators’ ability to indicate they were not authorized to respond or did not have means of responding to that request. The results of the assessment test showed that out of 14 operators only 3 were able to correctly and safely respond to all non-standard situations proposed. These operators, due to their previous knowledge on the English language, had been classified in the year before at least as level 4 according to ICAO's proficiency exam, that is, the minimum level required.
Based on the tests’ results, Fernandez (2014) emphasized the need for English instructions that allow the operators of the Meteorological Surveillance Center of Curitiba, as well as of the other three Surveillance Centers in Brazil (in Brasília, Recife, and Manaus), to develop their proficiency in the English language, and, thus, contribute to improve safety in aeronautical activities in radio communication contexts and meet ICAO’s requirements. According to his article, “the training of these operators may be guided in the sense of obtaining the adequate levels of linguistic proficiency, thus contributing to mitigate the risk of aeronautical incidents and accidents” (Fernandez, 2014, p.16). To illustrate the risk of a wrong authorization resulting from miscommunication, an operator who does not have a proper visualization of the position of en-route aircraft and does not know the regulations that guide this type of change may authorize an aircraft to descend or climb to a different altitude without being sure that there is no other aircraft flying below/above it, thus provoking a crash. Meteorological information wrongly released or omitted for a lack of linguistic proficiency, for instance dangerous embedded cloud formations, severe ice and
Since linguistic proficiency in English and the ability to deal with such mistaken requests and other situations not covered by the standard phraseology were considered a pre-requisite for working in areas that deal with international crew, not providing means for the operators to develop the required skills may have as a consequence the justified noncompliance of the regulations. While confusing situations in international en-route communication with Curitiba’s Meteorological Surveillance Center continue to be resolved with the help of air traffic controllers from other sectors, there is an impending risk of miscommunication in all other contexts, when for any reason this help cannot be provided. The consequences of this weakness in the Air Traffic Control System in Brazil, in addition to the aforementioned examples of accidents related to communication difficulties, might go far beyond the aircraft limits and, in a wider context, the Institution may be penalized for accidents and incidents caused by these operators, since they received no training for the requirements they are supposed to fulfill. Therefore, there is clear evidence that there is an urgent need to compensate this lack of attention given to the VOLMET service regarding linguistic proficiency, thus improving air navigation safety.
Brasil (2015). Manual de Centros Meteorológicos. Departamento de Controle do Espaço Aéreo. MCA 105-12. DECEA.
Campbell-Laird, K. (2004). Aviation English: A review of the language of international civil aviation. In Professional Communication Conference, 2004. IPCC 2004. Proceedings. International (pp. 253-261). IEEE.
Doc, ICAO. (2010). 9835. Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements. 2ed. International Civil Aviation Organization.
Fernandes Jr., L. C. (2014) A língua inglesa no serviço VOLMET. In Curso de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal, 2014. CAP 2/2014. (pp. 2-16). EAOAR.
Ковтун, О. В., & Гудманян, А. Г. (2014). Requirements to pilots and air traffic controllers’ proficiency in aeronautical communication.
Phraseology, I. S. (n.y.) A Quick Reference Guide for Commercial Air Transport Pilots. ICAO Phraseology Ref. Guide, 1-19.