Archive for March, 2010

English learning advice from Aviation English Asia.

A look at grammar and beyond to help communicate with the English-speaking passenger

Written by Michael McBride

In this article, specifically for cabin crew, you will learn different ways to communicate offers of service to passengers (food/drinks etc), dealing with formality/informality and different verb uses.  Also, you will be able to practice using video/image excerpts and advice for your future cabin crew English training.

Grammar focus – form and register

Although regarded by some people as a difficult area, grammar forms the building blocks of any language and once you have got a range of good grammatical phrases/expressions you can be confident in your job.  Hopefully what you learn in this article will be developed with further training, as learning English is an on going process.  Now looking at the words above in the subtitle…

Form relates to how something is constructed, for example we form regular past tense verbs using verb + ed, or modal verbs using modal (can/could etc) + verb infinitive.  Obviously connected with this should be meaning, otherwise why bother saying it?

Register refers to how formal or informal something is.  This can be expressed using different forms, and context (where something is said) plays a major part of this.  It can include the usual polite exchanges, such as please and thank you, but even this has different registers: “thanks” vs. “thank you very much.”  You can also change register with verbs, which is the main focus of this section.

Grammar and offering service on-board

As a member of cabin crew, you have to make passengers feel comfortable and provide a service, from offering drinks and food to helping them with their bags or opening an overhead compartment.  These expressions might include: –

  • Can I help you with your bags?
  • Do you want me to do that for you?
  • Can I get you a drink?  Here you go, thanks.

The above offers of service are clear and direct English, but to add a higher register and feeling of added politeness you could change the above with the following.

Could (modal) + verb infinitive

Would + Like instead of Do You

Thank You

Sir/Madam (especially in business class and on flagship airlines e.g. Cathay Pacific.)

How would you change those offers of service?


You should have something similar to this: –

  • Could I help/assist you with your bags, sir/madam?
  • Would you like me to help you with that?
  • Could I offer you a drink, sir/madam?  Here you go/are, thank you.


Modal verbs (can, could, would, should etc) will be very useful for your cabin language repertoire and they are easy to use because the form is always modal + verb infinitive.  You can change them to suit context and register and the degree of something, for example, “should” is a stronger suggestive modal than “could”.

Also notice that the verb infinitive can also be made more formal and courteous, for example, get -> offer.  It would be useful to have a range of both register forms depending on your airline’s needs.  Your instructor at Aviation English Asia will help you develop and understand these verb forms further.

Put it into practice

Visual exercise

Now you have the opportunity to role-play cabin crew scenarios using a range of media.  With the picture below answer the following questions: –

  1. What is happening?
  2. What part of the flight could it be?
  3. What do you think the cabin attendant is saying?
  4. What do you think the passenger is saying before and afterwards?
  5. Who else could be involved in the communication?


Do the same checklist of questions for the following scenarios: –

  • A passenger is having difficulty storing their bag in the overhead compartment
  • In the first class cabin, the passenger is trying to open up their flatbed.
  • A child passenger has just vomited in their seat

Video exercise

The following video link should act as a further role-play situation.  Pretend you are the cabin attendant and passenger, write down a list of questions and answers you expect.  What polite register language would you use?  You could also predict unusual actions for example, the passenger drops the glass of juice, what ‘offer of service’ language could you use?

Serving drinks
Credit – “primaseason”

Advice for training and practice

For further training you need to first evaluate your English skills.  However, if you can understand a lot of this article you are probably an intermediate user so “In-Flight English” with Aviation English Asia is a good choice for you.  The course allows you to improve your English while at the same time exploring and debating incidents that can affect cabin crew members.  You will go beyond grammar forms by putting language into context and practicing the English skills needed to become a cabin attendant.  There are also options for you to gain certification for your language ability from Cambridge ESOL, which will help you gain new positions or enhance your current position.

What to do next

For feedback and more information about Aviation English Asia’s courses please visit If you haven’t already please join the Aviation English mailing list for special offers and details of courses in your area.

English learning advice from Aviation English Asia.

Article written by Michael McBride

In this article I will focus on the context of the ICAO recommended English language requirements. In other words, why have ICAO shown so much interest in English language proficiency.  We will also look at various examples showing poor English skills that contributed to aviation incidents/accidents and then a quick look at what ICAO expects from you.

Do you know why you are here?

These should be fairly simple questions for you:

Why are you in English language training? Who are you and what do you want to achieve?

It goes without question that you should be here for the fundamental reason of preventing injury or even death in the sky or on the ground with intelligible and effective English skills.

Despite some airlines having their own Aviation English tests, as do some language academies, the common goal is to make sure pilots/controllers can communicate effectively in routine and non-routine situations.  Obviously a lack of English awareness could lead to an aviation incident or accident.

  • Generally, an aviation incident is an event that results in injury or damage to people/aircraft or at least is a cause for concern eg. a near-miss.
  • An accident usually means resulting fatalities from an aviation related event

Specific incidents/accidents showing lack of English communication

We will now look briefly at some aviation incidents/accidents, be aware that a lack of English skills was one factor in the problems that occurred.

  • Heathrow LOT 282 incident (2007).

This incident is a recent example used by Aviation English instructors to show that a clear and effective use of English could resolve an issue quickly.  From AAIB (2008) reports we are informed that the aircraft had navigational aid problems and pilots showed poor situational awareness, but also the responses by the crew to the English speaking ATC were practically unintelligible.  Good communication would not have escalated the chain of problems and the crew showed a lack of even basic English competency, for example the commander reported position as “330” instead of the actual “030”.  This could have been fatal but thankfully the aircraft eventually landed safely and was a recent ‘wake up’ call for all ICAO level 6 and lower Aviation personnel.

Please study the AAIB report here

  • New York Avianca 52 accident (1990)

This accident highlighted the problem of unsuitable AE lexis/vocabulary in alerting ATC of on-board problems.  Not far from Kennedy International flight deck problems resulted in a command for “priority landing” rather than a much better “emergency” command given the seriousness of their situation.  The captain and co-pilot did not ‘agree’ with the English commands, in other words there was little understanding in plain and phraseology English between them.  One thought “emergency” was stated, rather than the less critical “priority landing.”  Was there a Spanish-English translation issue here? Was it a lack of confidence and competency in English communication?

For a transcript of the communication before this tragedy resulted please click here

ICAO outcomes and recommendations

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is the general authority in aviation, underneath their position of authority are national regulators, with international organisations, such as JAA and Eurocontrol feeding expertise and recommended practices into the national regulators and ICAO.  The ICAO English requirements (level 4 etc) that you are studying for affect private pilots, commercial pilots, helicopter pilots and air traffic controllers.

ICAO English requirementsImplementation of ICAO recommended requirements for English Proficiency were originally set for 2008, but after this being unrealistic the date was changed to March 5th, 2011.  This is the date you must target for level 4 proficiency.

The overview of English proficiency as stated by ICAO is as follows: –

“The English Language shall be available on request from any aircraft station on the ground or in the air.”

Which means you must have the capability to respond in English even if in your ‘local’ airspace.

“Clarify that both phraseology and plain English proficiency are required”

As has been stated clearly in previous articles, you must be generally and on the whole effective in communicating phraseology and unexpected events, which may require plain/general English.

ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (September 2004) 9835 Document is seen in AE teaching as the guide to getting you at your required level of operation.  The articles I have written take information from this master document.


ICAO gave a series of recommendations after the Avianca accident, for example, including setting a fixed language of terms.  (ICAO, 1991)  It must be clear that  ICAO gives recommendations, not accreditation of assessment. Targeting the level you require is your first step with AE instruction, once you have obtained this after being tested by your airline or academy your English skills will become a long-term component of your career, with testing every 3 years if under ICAO level 6.

Your instructor at Aviation English Asia will guide you through the ICAO recommended practices in your course.  Remember you are interested in being intelligible, effective communicators for the majority of the time in both routine and unpredictable situations, using fixed phraseology and also plain English when required.  It should remain one very important part of your aviation career.


  • What is the difference between an incident and an accident?
  • Must you speak English all the time on the radio?
  • What basic English problems caused the Heathrow LOT 282 incident to be in the news?
  • What, in your opinion, are the key words that describe ICAO level 4?
  • How will you be tested?
  • Evaluate your next step, what are the most important reasons for your training?

What to do next

For feedback and more information about Aviation English Asia’s courses please visit If you haven’t already please join the Aviation English mailing list for instant access to free demonstration units of the ICAO Aviation English Online course, special offers and details of courses in your area.