Aviation Language Proficiency & You

Date of Issue:   Thursday, February 27, 2008

By John Quarterman, COPA Manager of Membership Assistance & Programs


On March 5th 2008, a new ICAO requirement went into effect around the world. By this date pilots and Air Traffic Controllers must be evaluated for language proficiency in one of two languages.   The languages are either English OR another language that is an accepted language for the country in which they are operating.   In Canada this means pilots will be evaluated for their English and/or French proficiency.   Either is acceptable, with different operational restrictions applying.

  • English and French remain the languages of aeronautical radio communication in Canada. (CAR 602.133)
  • Those operating an aircraft who wish to receive the services in a particular language (either English or French) still have to indicate that desire to the appropriate air traffic control unit or flight service station by means of an initial radio communication in their preferred language (CAR 602.134)
  • Flight service stations and air traffic control units will still be obliged to provide services in English and French at the specified locations (CAR 602.134)
  • All air traffic control units and flight service stations are still required to provide aeronautical radio communication services in English. (CAR 602.135)

(For further information see the TC safety article on the new language requirement)

To quote the ICAO website on the new language proficiency requirement…:

Amendment 164 to Annex 1 has introduced strengthened language proficiency requirements for flight crew members and air traffic controllers. The language proficiency requirements apply to any language used for radiotelephony communications in international operations. Therefore, pilots on international flights shall demonstrate language proficiency in either English or the language used by the station on the ground. Controllers working on stations serving designated airports and routes used by international air services shall demonstrate language proficiency in English as well as in any other language(s) used by the station on the ground.

For more information, please refer to Annex 1, Chapter 1, paragraph 1.2.9 and Attachment to Annex 1, and also to Annex 10, Volume II, Chapter 5. Please, also refer to the FAQ "Guidance on the evaluation of language proficiency".

All ICAO signatory countries with pilots operating internationally must assess their pilots and issue all licences with a proficiency rating which have their proficiency in English or the language used for air traffic control in that country indicated on their licence.   The only exception to that requirement is if a country has posted their plan (to later comply with the ICAO requirement), with the ICAO.

… the applicability date of 5 March 2008 is retained. However, the 36th Assembly of ICAO (September 2007) urged Contracting States to accept in their own airspace until 5 March 2011, pilots from other States that are not in a position to comply with the language proficiency requirements by 5 March 2008 provided that the States that issued or rendered valid the licenses post on the ICAO Flight Safety Exchange FSIX (click here) their language proficiency implementation plans.

Transport Canada has not posted a plan with the ICAO for compliance with the requirement. Transport Canada’s position is that they have substantially met the ICAO requirement, and therefore are not required to file an implementation plan with ICAO.  According to Transport Canada, over 95% of all Canadian pilots have already been accessed and their records amended to show they are proficient in English, a small percentage have been assessed as French only and a similar small percentage has yet to be assessed.  New licence holders will be assessed for language proficiency and there are already facilities and personnel in place to ensure that. 

As far as Transport Canada is concerned, there is no domestic requirement for existing licence holders to show their language proficiency on the licence,   Transport Canada has nevertheless recently put a plan into action for dealing with the impending March 5th deadline for international operations. They have been issuing licences with language indication since last fall whenever a new licence is issued or an existing licence is upgraded. To deal with the impending deadline and with no plan posted, which would have alleviated the need for language profiles on licences in the near term, Transport Canada officials have instead implemented a plan to print replacement licences that are ICAO-compliant for all CPL (Commercial Pilot Licence), ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) and Air Traffic Controller licence holders before the March 5th deadline.   For other licence and permit holders, however, they will not receive an automatic upgrade to their licences. The rationale for this decision is that the workload involved in converting 65,000 documents would be lengthy and, for many recreational pilots not intending to fly internationally in the near future, would be a waste of resources considering that new photo ID, passport format licences and permits will be issued in the near future (expected to be completed by the end of 2010). So, Transport Canada continues to accept current licences without a language proficiency indication for domestic operations only.  


What Pilots Should Do About This Requirement


If you plan to only fly domestically you do not have to do anything. However, it is important to understand that since Canada has not filed a plan with the ICAO, pilots should comply with the requirement for a language indication on their licence as of March 5th 2008 in order to fly internationally, including the US.

  • If you have a licence with a language proficiency indication already – you are covered. You may fly internationally.
  • If you are an ATPL or CPL licence holder with a valid Class 1 medical, and have not yet received your new licence, WAIT – you should receive your new licence by mail in the near future. Transport Canada’s intent is to deliver reprinted, current format licences to all CPLs and ATPLs by the March deadline.
  • If you are a licence holder and are not planning to fly outside the country – you are not required to possess a licence showing language proficiency. DO nothing!
  • The ICAO standards apply only to ATPL, CPL, PPL and Air Traffic Controller licences so holders of other licences and permits are not affected by this requirement.
  • If you are a PPL holder and your licence does not have your language proficiency indicated and you ARE planning to fly internationally including the USA you need a replacement licence, The FAA document on this matter says nothing about foreign airmen operating on their foreign licences but it does make the following statement:

    " All private, commercial or ATP as well as FEs and flight navigators should hold a replacement certificate with the "English Proficient" endorsement when operating internationally as required crewmembers of an airplane or helicopter." 

    This statement implies that the FAA agrees with ICAO that anyone flying internationally should have a language profile and therefore the statement gives the angle an inspector may need to violate someone or at least bring it to Canada's attention that one of their pilots is operating illegally.  So CALL the Transport Canada regional office where your pilot file is kept and ask for the licensing department, then ask them for a replacement licence with the language proficiency indicated. Virtually everyone will receive a replacement licence on the basis of an assessment of their file. There is no cost for the replacement licence.

  • We have received informal information (from an international pilot’s association representative), that Mexico is planning to enforce the requirement for new licensing and new pilot licences indication language proficiency.
  • According to a Transport Canada representative:

    • Transport Canada has ascertained that the USA is not planning language enforcement against (or to violate) Canadians with the old licences, (notwithstanding the March 5 deadline and the FAA document calling for compliant licences).  Transport is in discussion with the FAA regarding the status and future of French-only proficiency pilots with regard to flights in the USA.
    • Transport Canada has no plans to require American existing licence-holders to possess licences with the language proficiency indicated.
    • Pilots in Canada can now check their existing language proficiency rating (click here to see explanation how).
  • To request a new licence (only if you need it), look up your licensing office in the region responsible otherwise the general region telephone numbers follow:

    Pacific Region (British Columbia)
    Telephone:  (604) 666-3518
    Fax:  (604) 666-7255

    Prairie and Northern Region (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut)
    Telephone:  (204) 983-3152
    Telephone:  1-888-463-0521

    Ontario Region (Ontario)
    General Telephone: (416) 952-0154
    Fax: (416) 952-0159

    Quebec Region (Quebec)
    Telephone:  (514) 633-2714
    Fax:  (514) 633-2751

    Atlantic Region (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland & Labrador)
    General Telephone: 1-800-387-4999

  • If you have recently completed training for a new licence or rating, and have been assessed for language proficiency the document you will receive should include your language indication.
  • If you receive a document that indicates only one language and you feel that you can qualify for both English and French, contact your regional Transport Canada office.
  • For our friends from the USA: If you are an American pilot intending to fly in Canada and your licence does not have your language proficiency on it, you should obtain a new licence from the FAA (for US pilots), or from the country that has licensed you (for other foreign pilots) .  As stated earlier, COPA has been verbally assured by Transport Canada that US pilots (or others) will NOT be violated if their older licence does not conform to the ICAO requirement.  We will of course advise further if TC makes a formal written statement on the matter.