When Miscommunication Turns Deadly: The True Story of Avianca Flight 52

What Happened?

In January 1990, Avianca Flight 52 from Bogota, Colombia, to New York City, was running out of fuel on approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Due to weather conditions, the aircraft was kept in a holding pattern prior to landing, even though its fuel situation was critical. The flight crew communicated the situation to the ground crew, but according to reports, they failed to use correct terminology to describe the situation. They did not, for example, use the word “emergency.” Unfortunately, air traffic control underestimated the seriousness of the situation, and the Boeing 707 aircraft crashed into a residential area on Long Island, killing 73 of the 158 people on board.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the crash occurred partly from the flight crew’s failure to properly communicate a fuel emergency.

How Could Something Like That Happen?

In early 2017, a report commissioned by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on English language proficiency in UK Aviation was released, with special focus on the reality of the language capacity of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) accredited pilots.

The report, entitled ‘Aviation English Research Project: Data analysis findings and best practice recommendations,’ found that ICAO levels of language proficiency, especially Level 4, are “not robust enough to ensure appropriately clear pilot/controller communication.”

Ominously, the report also ensued that there are “grounds to suspect that some non-native English speakers are not being tested, but instead are granted ICAO Level 4 certificates on ‘sweetheart’ deals (handshakes, via friends, etc.)”.

The language proficiency issues were easy to spot in the UK’s Civil Aviation Administration’s accident records. Over an 18-month period, the report was able to identify 267 Mandatory Occurrence Reports (MORs) – ranging from minor to larger incidents – as being related to miscommunication.

According to the report’s summary, “it is imperative that all pilots and controllers working in international aviation have the proficiency to communicate clearly and succinctly in all situations, routine and non-routine. Language-related miscommunication, including lack of ICAO proficiency standards, certainly has the potential to be the cause of serious incidents or even accidents.”

How Do We Avoid Situations Like this from Happening in the Future?

Former FAA air traffic controller, Dr. Sid McGuirk, knows first-hand the importance of communication to flight safety.

Language is key not only for pilots and air traffic controllers, but throughout many facets of aviation,” McGuirk set forth in an interview. “Nearly all human factors textbooks and manuals identify communication as a critical element of safe operations, citing both first-language and second-language interactions as contributory factors to numerous accidents and incidents.”

Until international standards are brought up to a more appropriate level, it’s up to individual airline operations to verify the language capacities of their crew. In short, responsible airline operations should be increasing their proficiency standards and expanding their language testing programs to ensure the safety of passengers, flight & ground crew.

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Lisa March is a bilingual Marketing and Sales Executive. She works closely with LTI on strategic partnerships, business development and marketing. Her efforts help LTI scale the use and implementation of language assessments in schools, institutions, corporations and government agencies.