March 23, 2000
Pardon My French, But It's English Only
On the Flight Deck for Air France Pilots
By ANDY PASZTOR and THOMAS KAMM
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
ROISSY, France -- At its Charles de Gaulle hub, Air France will Thursday do what once seemed unthinkable: jettison French.
Putting safety concerns above Gallic pride, the carrier for the first time
has ordered its pilots to use only English when talking to air-traffic
controllers at this bustling field outside Paris. Controllers will have no
choice but to respond in kind. The idea is to eliminate the rapid-fire
French phrases that now fill radio frequencies here -- and which frequently
befuddle and even infuriate many foreign pilots.
Now, it's the French who are steamed. For generations, French cockpit crews
and controllers have defied industry custom and rebuffed entreaties from
international aviation authorities by insisting on speaking exclusively
French with each other at all of the country's airports. And some see no
need to change course now.
"L'Anglais" at de Gaulle: "NON!" blares the front page of the latest weekly
bulletin of Alter, a pilot's union that says it represents about 15% of Air
France's pilots. "Keep speaking French, as before," the union urges. Bruno
Sinatti, a pilot and Alter member, backs the call: "France has a law that
protects French and asks people to speak French whenever possible." Another
Air France pilot denounces the "arrogance of bosses ... willing to shove
aside the French language."
By all accounts, language mix-ups have never caused any serious incidents at
de Gaulle. French controllers already shift to English when dealing with
non-French pilots. But then those crews often have no idea what nearby
aircraft are doing or being told to do.
"It's frustrating indeed to fly into or out of de Gaulle," says Capt. Chris
Yates, a 33-year British Airways veteran, after a recent trip piloting a
packed Boeing 757 from London. "You simply can't tell if another plane has
made a mistake." He says Italians and Spaniards sometimes lapse into their
own languages when communicating with towers in their homelands, "but the
French absolutely seem to be the best at avoiding English."
But of course. This is a country where platoons of bureaucrats still
struggle to protect the purity of the French language -- mainly from
English. It's an increasingly tricky quest: Economic globalization and the
Internet have accelerated the incursion into French of such barbarisms as
"la start-up" and "le stock-option," both of which were on a recently
released Finance Ministry task-force list of commonly used terms that should
be scrubbed from Francophone tongues. (The ministry suggests calling a
start-up a jeune pousse -- a young plant shoot.)
The mastermind of Air France's new language policy is Capt. Bertrand de
Courville, the carrier's head of safety. He thinks France is becoming "more
mature" about language issues. And indeed, it appears that most Air France
pilots are willing to go along with the plan. Nonetheless, Air France has
been toiling quietly to effect the change, in the hope of presenting the
inevitable critics with a fait accompli. Capt. de Courville says embracing
English will enable Air France "to look ahead and systematically enhance
safety" at its own base. It is "an operational decision, not a cultural
There are some sound operational reasons for the move. The major
international treaty governing air traffic calls for English to be the
lingua franca of the skies, though there are many loopholes. More important,
de Gaulle airport is undergoing a major expansion that will eventually give
it two new runways. Its international traffic is growing rapidly as it seeks
to become an even more important hub for the European Union. To keep things
running smoothly as de Gaulle gets more crowded, "controllers have to be
able to intervene immediately if there is a deviation," says Bill Semple,
executive director of Britain's air-traffic control network. He says that's
easier if everyone is speaking the same language.
Still, Air France isn't pressing its luck. Senior Air France managers killed
proposals to require English at other airports in the country, including
ones that handle international flights, such as Nice and Lyon. Orly airport,
located less than 30 miles from de Gaulle on the opposite side of Paris,
will remain a French-speaking field. What's more, in the event of a real
emergency at de Gaulle, stressed pilots still have permission to revert to
It's impressive that there haven't been serious accidents in years at de
Gaulle -- which handles more than 460,000 takeoffs and landings a year,
about the same as San Francisco's airport -- given how confusing the
dual-language system can be. One recent sunny afternoon, controllers at de
Gaulle contend with a cacophony of at least 15 nationalities, including
Greek, Russian, Chinese, Cypriot and Brazilian crews, all talking haltingly
to controllers in heavily accented English.
Punctuating the patter are more-rapid utterances in French. A Cathay Pacific
jet loses its chance to push back from its gate, despite several
transmissions; its pilots don't immediately understand that an Air France
jumbo is requesting clearance to proceed down the same route. Later, the
captain of a Japan Airlines jet, momentarily confused about taxiing
instructions, hurriedly asks controllers to "clarify the intentions" of an
Air France 747 approaching his plane head-on. Pilots of a United Airlines
flight to Washington, already an hour late for takeoff, repeatedly ask
controllers how to wind around airport construction. Their request is
interrupted by several French transmissions.
Arguments over language aren't new in French aviation. Years ago, French
pilots unsuccessfully lobbied Airbus Industrie to write all of its design
documents and to label cockpit instruments in French. Current government
rules say that French should be spoken when it is the mother tongue of both
pilot and controller, "unless there are good reasons" to do otherwise.
Given that kind of history, the officials who run France's version of the
Federal Aviation Administration are girding for what could be a firestorm by
putting the onus for the change squarely on the airline. "Whether Air France
or any other airline chooses to speak French or English, that's entirely
their business," says a spokesman for the agency.
Other officials seem to be acting more in line with one of the best-known
adages of the late Gen. Charles de Gaulle himself: "France has lost a
battle. But France has not lost the war." Gilles Mantoux, a senior adviser
to the director of air navigation at the agency, explains it this way: "For
us, it's not a real safety issue... . We have no particular support for this
initiative, nor do we take a position against it."
While there's so far been little public criticism of Air France's
decision -- it hasn't hit the French press yet -- supporters of the move
worry about this kind of official ambivalence. Capt. de Courville says he
expects some resistance, but figures a "high percentage of crews will switch
to English." Yet angst over the move -- and the way it has been
engineered -- runs deep in some pilots.
A veteran Airbus A320 captain fumes that the new policy "is belittling part
of our legacy." Mr. Sinatti, the Air France pilot and Alter union member,
complains that the measure "just fell from the sky," without adequate
consultation with pilots.
Some advocates of the change are uneasy about attitudes like that. If there
is enough opposition and bad press, worries Stuart Matthews, chairman of the
Flight Safety Foundation, an air-safety think tank in Alexandria, Va.,
French industry and government officials "are liable to change their minds."