Airline languages

I was at the airport the other day and was struck by the many different airlines that were in evidence. A thought rapidly followed that observation, “How do all those different pilots speaking (I assume) all those different languages speak to the guys in the tower?” Is there an international language (probably English) that every single pilot that flies international must know? Please illuminate me people!

It’s English, sometimes in the form of broken English, even for Russian international flights. I’m not sure about their internal flights, or China’s.

Yep. The English is the standard tower-pilot language for commercial flights, even if neither are native speakers. I can only assume the Academie Francaise is currently trying to ban English over French airspace.

English is also used for some non-commercial flights as well. Back when I was teaching English in rural Japan, one of my regular classes was with trainee fighter pilots at the JASDF (Japan Air Self-Defense Forces) base in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. The pilots used Japanese for casual radio chatter, but all instructions, positions, etc. were given in English.


I know for a fact that an Italian civil pilot on a Milan-Naples flight talks to the tower in English.

When I vacationed in Cancun, Mexico, even the runway markings (e.g. “Hold here for tower clearance”) were in English.

Based on hearing/seeing transcripts of pilot-control tower conversations, it’s obvious that English is the worldwide standard language in the cockpit. But, that’s for international flights, I would presume that a Vladivostok to St. Petersburg flight on Aeroflot would be conducted entirely in Russian.

Incidentally, on Friday night I’m flying Air France from Washington-Dulles to Stockholm, via Paris-De Gaulle. I’m curious to see if the in-flight announcements to the passengers are bilingual at all, or done entirely in French. A few years ago, when I flew Austrian Air from Dulles to Zurich, the announcements were trilingual (German, English, and then French). I was quite puzzled that when breakfast was announced on that flight, the only language I understood enough to know what was happening was French (Petit déjeuner made sense to me, but breakfast did not. Go figure).

English is the agreed standard. In practice a restricted subset of English is generally used as it reduces the chance of misunderstandings between pilots & controllers who may have very different accents and comprehension levels. This has been known to cause problems for foreign pilots in US airspace where, unlike most of the world, the majority of flights are internal and the controllers are not as used to using the ‘international’ English.

The standard of English is not rigorously enforced. For instance, earlier this year, France wanted to require its use exclusively at CDG, but was beaten back by the usual French language purists. Instead, you have a mix of the local language and English at many commercial airports, and the local language may be the only one used at smaller ones.

Take pity on these guys, though - ever listen to a US air traffic control channel? Even we natives can have trouble keeping up with the speed of the speakers. And, although there are supposed to be standardized terms and phrasings, variation into local slang is pretty common. FWIW, Air France pilots are nicknamed “Keskidis” by US controllers because they are often overheard asking each other “Qu’est-ce qu’il dit?” (What did he say?) after receiving an instruction.

Also FWIW, the numbers are spoken per English usage, except for 9 being pronounced “Niner” to avoid confusion with the German “Nein” (No).

You’re right about the 9’er, but I think it’s more to do with clarity than worrying about the Germans. The numbers 9 and 5 sound awefully similar over the radio, especially when different accents are taken into account, and if more than one digit is spoken.

FWIW, the NATO standard digits are (if memory serves) pronounced so:
zero won too tree fower fife six seven ate niner
Numbers over ten are spoken as individual digits.