Saturday, January 07, 2006

LANGUAGE PROBLEMS IN AVIATION

I used to be the head of a scheduled Airline in the Maldives and the team that I had put together was multi-national. We had a US pilot, a German pilot, a Burmese pilot, Sri Lankan Accountant, all engineers working on the Aircraft from different parts of India (Bengalis, Malyalees, Kannadiga and Tamilians) and of course local Maldivians working in the operations and other departments.

Needless to say, there were all these people speaking in English with one another, but with their own ways and accents. There were many hilarious moments while working with all these people because of the lack of understanding between them with respects to various terms and accents. This was true not only among the foreigner and Indians, but also between Indians themselves. The Bengalis would pronounce everything “V” with a “B” and the natural Malyalee accent was misunderstood by the others etc.

One time, one of the cockpit instruments was not working as per specs and the pilot reported the same to the Indian Avionics engineer (he’s the one who fixes avionics – instruments and radios in the cockpit). The pilot was American. The pilot told the engineer that the particular instrument was “broken and needed to be fixed”. As is normal, after the pilot reported the matter to the engineer and went home, the engineer went on to remove the instrument and check it, and re-installed it. He made an entry in the logbooks that he found the instrument to be OK and nothing broken. The pilot came back again on the next days flight and told the engineer that the instrument was still broken. Perplexed, the engineer this time dismantled the instrument completely and refitted the same and reported to the pilot that the instrument was OK and he did not find anything broken. I happened to be on the scene during this conversation and found the hilarity in the misunderstanding between the two people speaking more or less the same language. As most American readers would know, when something is not working, the common place term for it is that it is broken. Even a car has a breakdown you see, not necessarily that the car has split in half! Same situation here. The pilot meant to say that the instrument was not working properly (not a critical part, though) and the engineer understood as some part of the instrument had broken loose. That’s why he had repeatedly removed the instrument and re-installed after making sure nothing was broken and loose inside!

During our weekly meetings with heads of all departments, issues were brought up, even mundane ones, to ensure that everyone understood the other properly and that safety was never compromised due to any misunderstanding.

The problem of understanding each other is still an issue with so many foreign pilots (due to shortage of Indians) flying the domestic Airlines. Their communications with ATC (Air Traffic Control) have been a problem, not only due to faulty communication systems on the ground but also due to misunderstanding of various accents and ways of speaking the same language – English. This has been highlighted by CNN-IBN news “fear in the sky” that was running for the last few days. However, I assure all my readers that flying is safe and that I found some parts of the program alarmist in nature and not entirely objective. Till next time, have a good one.

4 comments:

Nikhil Joshi said...

PERRRRFECT! I have been looking all around the world for a person to tell me what the aviation business in india looks like. I am a student of Aviation Management at a U.S university (and I am from mysore, by the way), and I find you on mymysore.com. Awesome.
from now on, Me=your avid reader. You live in mysore, sir?

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Thanks for your kind comments Nikhil, i used to live in the US for a long time and then in the Maldives, all aviation jobs. Currently in Mysore for the last three months or so. I do have some projects on hand here and overseas.

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

a note to Mr. Nikhil Joshi and other readers of my blog. In this space, there will be light reading material on aviation, including anecdotes, explanation on some terms and information on the Mysore Airport project as and when it happens. For serious aviation subjects with technical and management details and perspectives, my article may be found on: http://www.airlineempires.net/
So, check this out and check this space on mymysore.com , an excellent link for Mysoreans living in this country and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

This piece about language problems made interesting reading. Coming to think of the story, I would have thought the American on the second occassion could have atleast elaborated about what was wrong as we do in the UK.
The poor engineer should not be blamed as when some yank says "hey my altimeter is broken and needs fixin'"
The engineer would have naturally asked "right, whats exactly the problem mate ?"
Cos instruments working in anger while the aircraft is in flight would certainly behave like all was fine in the workshop...Bloody Yank pilot ! better off dusting crops rather than high flying !!