The last post concerned Chicago O'Hare and the ATC pros that run the show at one of the busiest, craziest airports on the planet. The contollers are often under immense pressure to move the machinery around safely and efficiently, keeping their cool and understanding that the flight decks of the aircraft they are shepherding to land or take off can be just as tense an environment. Sometimes they can forget. After all, their "customers" actually leave the ground with all that that entails.
The international language of civil commercial aviation is English, partly because it is spoken and understood in such a large percentage of the world but also because it is a more technical language than, for instance, any of the so-called "romance languages" I heard one guy once quip that the English phrase "lower flaps" took up a whole paragraph when translated into French and that by the time you got it all out, you would've crashed. An embellishment for sure but the point is taken--English seems to be a language more suited to technology or areas where crisp and concise information needs to be passed quickly. International flight crews are expected to be fluent to a certain level of English but I have heard that some carriers have resorted to carrying translators with them on the flight decks because their pilots have not made the grade but have to fly the airplanes to both generate company revenues and to earn their keep. This is obviously a hazard, especially at busy international airports. London's Heathrow airport has a very lengthy and formal procedure to obtain IFR clearances before departure. It is a regal pain but one reason for it may be that at this literal crossroads of the world, where thousands of passengers and tons of machinery from all countries of the world meet up and are all hurtling around in close proximity, ATC needs to be sure that not only all players are on the same page, but that all players understand what page they're on. LHR's safety record is second to none and perhaps this is partly the reason. Problems with poor communications are evident everyday in all walks of life. But when communications have to do with large equipment in motion carrying passengers, it clearly becomes vital---as in vital signs.
Pilots comfortable with the language, customs, airport, local terrain and procedures can do some things that pilots less familiar would never be asked to attempt. There was the "crow-bar" approach at La Guardia in a DC-9 (or equivalent) where ATC, seeing a small gap opening up in the arrivals line on a clear day, would fill the slot by "dropping" in an airplane to speed things up.
"Air Canada 756 La Guardia can you make thirty-one from there?"
"La Guardia Air Canada 756, rog." (I never heard "no we can't"---ever)
"Air Canada 756 La Guardia go tower eighteen seven now. Thanks. Seeya!"
After some furious fast hands flight deck work and a steep carving descent, mission accomplished. This would never even be asked of an airport "stranger"
The tower controllers at LAX often asked us to switch runways at the very last minute for whatever reason.
"Air Canada final right side LAX can you shift to the left?"
"Rog" and away we would go with an aggressive left turn then right to line up again.
I've done it many times there, sometimes inside the marker. The move is, to a well trained, confident and competent crew, a safe, straightforward hands and feet excercise. But I have heard it on good authority from LAX ATC that when a carrier arrives from Asia, they assign their runway 300 miles out and never EVER change it. Evidently many Asian carriers do not handle change too well and I'll bet some has to do with language.
The video and recording attached to my email is an example of this problem and indicates quite clearly the stress and impatience of a very busy ground controller at JFK when an airplane, even one that is on the ground, fails to "get the message". Please return to the email and give a listen.
Until next time, over 'n out.