Airline Safety Through Language

the achievement of Marjo Mitsutomi


In September, 2001 the Public Relations Department of the University of Redlands in California published a story on their NewsWise website about an extraordinary achievement by one of their faculty members, Marjo Mitsutomi.

Mitsutomi devised a method of ensuring better communication between air pilots and air traffic controllers, using the official international aviation language of English as a resource to avoid potential disasters.

"I stumbled onto the problem by having married a flight school owner," said Mitsutomi. After learning about unsafe conditions due to pilots and air traffic controllers having difficulty with the language, including several near runway collisions and near misses, Mitsutomi developed a proposal for English language standards and standardized testing of English proficiency. The Federal Aviation Administration's regulations were too vague, requiring only that pilots be able to "read, speak, write and understand English."

In 1998, Mitsutomi and Kathleen O'Brien, safety program manager in the Long Beach Flight Standards District Office, began briefing aviation groups on the need for testing of English speaking and competency skills for non-native English speaking pilots, as well as air traffic controllers.

"There are no standards, and there is no test," said Mitsutomi. "I don't think it is enough for a pilot to simply learn a list of standard words and repeat the jargon during a any given flight.

"What they need to be able to do is to use the language to be able to negotiate meaning during routine and non-routine situations. But that's not spelled out anywhere.

"Upon initial licensing, now pilots either flunk or pass depending on the inspector."

"The industry has designed standard phrases and standard procedures for standard situations," said Mitsutomi. "If everything in a flight remains standard, then it is okay to communicate with a list of standard phrases. But life happens and not every situation is standard."

The project has quickly gained support. "The issue is so compelling that it tends to draw people," said Mitsutomi. She made a presentation at the FAA's national safety summit in 2000 in Washington, D.C. The group prepared a list of the 10 most important concerns from its summit, and the standardization of air traffic control language was on the list. The FAA's Pilot English Competency Working Group was formed in 2001, with Mitsutomi onboard. The International Civil Aviation Organization then formed its Proficiency Requirements in Common English group, with Mitsutomi as a member.

"Until now, it has been awareness raising," said Mitsutomi. "From here, the work starts."

In October 2001 Marjo Mitsutomi, assistant professor in education with a doctor of philosophy in applied linguistics, received the Federal Aviation Administration's Commitment to Safety Award for her work with The English Project.


Marjo Mitsutomi was born and raised in Finland, lived and taught for seven years in Japan, and currently resides and teaches in southern California.  Her home routinely echoes to the sound of three languages.  Her academic background, theoretical and practical,  is in applied linguistics and teaching English as a foreign language.

Marjo has informed Nurturing Potential that "one of my research agendas has been to work on standardizing aviation English proficiency for pilots and air traffic controllers. I was part of a working group at ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) in Montreal for a few years. The group recommended that ICAO adopt a language proficiency scale with a minimum acceptable standard for global aviation; that happened in March of last year. Now the 188 member countries have till 2008 to show compliance. It is quite the first in the history of aviation as well as linguistics for one language to be adopted for official use for the sake of safety. I, too, like my husband, am a pilot."

CLICK HERE for Marjo's contribution to our Verse section.