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Chinese Pilot Speaking Incomprehensible English — What Does This Mean for Air Traffic Control?

My Chinese pilot on an Air China flight couldn’t speak English. I wondered what the broader implications of this is in global aviation and air traffic control.

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I was aboard an Air China flight bound for JFK that was preparing for departure. The pilot came over the intercom to give his customary introduction. The Chinese was very understandable, clean Mandarin. I listened, nodded, and relaxed. Then he let out a drawn out noise that sounded something like a cross between air being expelled from a balloon and a gluttonous belch. It was absolutely incomprehensible.

“What the hell was that?”

“I think it was English,” my wife replied.

“It was???”

It was. Or was supposed to have been. Though we couldn’t understand a single word of it.

Then a rattle of surprise overtook me when I realized that this pilot needs to speak to air traffic control in English, and it would soon be very important for a native English speaker to understand his babble. English is the lingua franca of aviation, but it is a foreign language for most of the world, so foreign accents, mispronunciations, and minor screw ups are probably standard fare and acceptable, but a pilot who speaks the language completely incomprehensible seems as if it could be a major problem.

After a safe landing I called up an airline pilot friend to find out what the ATC protocol is for pilots who can’t really speak English. Apparently, the people in the tower just have to struggle through it. There are additional air traffic procedures for non-native English speakers, and the men and women in the towers deal with this daily. Though the low English level of some Chinese pilots in particular has become an issue in aviation. Apparently, it’s also a MEME:

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Filed under: Air Travel

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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