O GLOBO: Speaking Greek in the skies
FAB (Brazilian Air Force) admits that few air traffic controllers know English and that this increases the risk of accidents.
The lack of English knowledge in the Brazilian Air Traffic Control system has made the Aeronautica, in an official document, admit that this fact is a real danger, possibly leading to accidents. This analysis made for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reveals that it is likely that the controller would need to, but would not able to speak English with a minimum of fluency - and that this could become an incident that would be of a "major severity". As this level of risk is above the limit accepted by international standards, FAB was required to develop and implement a plan with "mitigation measures". Amongst other measures there is a spreading out of the few professionals who are fluent in English, in order to make sure that at least one person with English fluency is present in the control rooms.
The FAB-document, to which O GLOBO gained access, informs that between 2003 and 2007 ten air incidents (near accidents) in which the (incorrect) use of the English language was a contributing factor to the occurrence. Out of these, three were critical, or better nearly became an air accident. These occurred in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – before or during the crisis in the air sector and when the two most severe aircraft accidents of the history of the countries occurred.
Despite this, FAB classified as remote the probability that these incidents occurred due to a language deficiency of the controllers. One of the reasons for this could be that the international air traffic is only representing 7% of the total traffic in the country. Nevertheless, when putting down the variables of the frequency and the severity of the cases, FAB had, by following international standards, to put Brazil in the category of a "medium risk". This means that measures become obligatory in order to reduce to a minimum the impacts of the English language deficiencies and so the chances of accidents occurring. This even more when taking into account that the above-mentioned report only analysis the impacts of the English language deficiency, and not other factors such as equipment, airport infrastructure or controller workload.
After the accident of flight 1907 of Gol, with 154 persons killed, the English deficiency of the national air traffic control system became evident. The Boeing jet collided in the air with a private jet flown by Americans. A inquiry in 2005 revealed that only 2.6% of the controllers had the minimal knowledge of English that would become to be required as standard as of March 2008 – and with the danger of a loss of license for the controllers and pilots. Brazil was unable to meet this new standard. In order to obtain three years of postponement of the fulfillment of these international standards, it was necessary to send this detailed report of the current situation with the risks and the planned actions foreseen to meet the planned objective.
The country did hide the results of the English tests
The country did nevertheless hide the results of the tests that were made last year on all of the over 3000 professionals working in the control rooms – sergeants of the FAB, and also civilians employed by Infraero. The country had a deadline since 2003 in order to meet the ICAO-standard, ICAO an organ linked to the United Nations and which coordinates the standards and rules for Civil Aviation. The new international standard asks for English level 4, using a scale of 1 to 6. In reality the professional is required to express himself, if required – meaning if there needs to be said something to the pilot that is outside the "phraseology" (a standard of stored orders and answers).
In the document sent to ICAO, FAB explains "in case that there are circumstances that require the use of English Level 4, there could be a difficulty of understanding between the pilots and the controllers" This means there is a potential risk that this limitation of knowledge of English could create problems, such are for instance the infringement of the minimum distance between aircraft in flight. This all due to a unclear clearance transmitted by a controller who is not mastering the English language.
FAB approved its plan on March 4, the day before the deadline given by ICAO. The document itself is dated a little before, on February 29. The country justifies its lack of compliance with the following: "Due to large number of controllers and the big land extension of Brazil there are difficulties to train them. And also due to difficulty to hire qualified staff who is dispensing the required training.
Internally, the lack of adequate training was always justified by the military as a consequence of the budgetary restrictions imposed on them in the last years. Despite this, after the accident of flight 1907, in September 2006, FAB promised to give priority to the English studies. But only as early as last year the sergeants were put into small language courses – and in the case of the professionals of the Centro Amazônico (ACC Manaus) a course via internet was chosen.
Today FAB is running after the delay, including the organization of intensive courses with aeronautical organizations .Until these courses are showing results it is planned to spread out the controllers which are most fluent in English to the posts where this is required.
Controllers involved in the Gol-case does not speak any foreign language
The deficiency could have created confusion with the Americans
BRASÍLIA. Air Traffic controllers involved in the collision of 2006 between a Boeing of Gol and a Legacy-jet of ExcelAire – accident in which the English-deficiency of the Brazilian operators is considered as a contributing factor – will be judged by civil and military courts. They are accused of crimes which go from failure to follow service orders and continue until intentional manslaughter. The legal actions are intended in the Federal Justice in Mato Grosso as well as the High Military Court. The third-level sergeant Jomarcelo dos Santos, who was tasked with the surveillance of the foreign aircraft close to Brasilia does not speak English and alleged to know only the basic sentences used for his work. The most serious accusations are linked to him: having shown negligence in the surveillance of the small jet that flew above the foreseen altitude and with its transponder not functioning. The transponder enables the precise lecture of the altitude of the aircraft by the radars and is actioning the anti-collision system.
Not only for him, but there are also indications that the linguistical limitations of the tower controller could have complicated the comprehension and understanding of the pilots. The Americans insisted that they had received a flight level clearance which was different from what was registered in the flight data progressing systems. Despite the complaint filed by the FAB to the STM (Superiour Military Court) and another made by the Public Proceutor to the Federal Justice in Sinop (Mato Grosso), the technical investigation made by the Aeronautica is not yet finished.
Lawyers of the controllers believe that "system" failures cannot be exclusively be put at charge of them. The list of issues contains problems such as insufficient training and goes until problems of how the software is showing the radar information. On the other hand FAB considers that all controllers are sufficiently trained, including for "standard English", including their knowledge of the planned procedures laid down in the manual for situations such as the one of this accident, as well as for prolonged radio communication failures.
Nevertheless, for the case of the foreign language knowledge only now, and due to the pressure made by ICAO, a written English test must be passed during the entry exams for the start of the controller training. Beforehand, there was only an elementary level required, and even the own FAB-instructors admitted that the sergeants came in with "zero knowledge". In the old training syllabus there were 300 hours of English, which was considered to be insufficient.
In a note sent to GLOBO FAB affirms that the Brazilian controllers "have proficiency to carry out in English the standard communications" and the intent is to permit a "much safer execution in situations in which it is required to extrapolate the use of the standard phraseology". FAB communicates that they have invested, last year, 3.3 million Reais in English courses for controllers.
The assessors of Aeronáutica insisted as well on the fact that the likelihood of an incident to occur due to the English-difficulties of the controllers is remote. The methology used by the FAB has followed the official parameters of ICAO, but started from an analysis of the official incident registers (near accidents) of the last years. Complaints made by controllers indicate that there is a deficiency in this process as situations of risk are being hidden by the military system. In other countries these registers are open and public.
Air Traffic controllers cannot go public with their complaints as they are afraid of military punishments, an example of this occurred after the mutiny of March 30, 2007 when all the air traffic of Brazil had come to a stand-still. (Leila Suwwan)