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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Learning the Language of the Skies: English

For the Western pilot, the airspace over the Russian Far East is a vast and alluring new frontier -- a great, unfamiliar expanse.


For the Russian air traffic controller, the terrain can be equally unfamiliar. The skies, of course, are not new. But the language is.


Russia's air traffic control system not only lacks the technology and the personnel to meet the desire of Western airlines to use Russia's airspace, but it also lacks English, the international language of the skies.


Of the more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in Russia, about 3,000 are considered competent in English by Rosaeronavigatsia, the nation's air traffic control agency. Only 300 of these actually use English on the job.


Russia's three air traffic training centers teach rudimentary English, which until recently was enough, given the limited amount of international air traffic the country allowed. But, as Yevgeny Kuzminov, assistant director of professional training for Rosaeronavigatsia, put it: "The language issue is not a problem with us. We have another problem: good knowledge of the language."


Russia is hoping to earn vast sums of money, $400 million by some estimates, by throwing open its skies. Over the Far East alone, that would mean training up to 1,500 new air traffic controllers in English, according to Rosaeronavigatsia.


The problem was cast in sharp relief last year, when Russia opened two corridors, called Siberia II and Kamchatka I, to Western air traffic. In part due to controllers' lack of adequate English, the two routes combined handle only 4 Western planes per hour for a few hours per day. The true capacity is triple that.


Western airlines, which stand to save substantial sums by cutting through Russian airspace en route to Asian destinations, took the initiative on themselves by paying for the first groups of Russian air traffic controllers to learn English at training centers in the West.


One of the largest is at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, which just graduated its third class of controllers destined for the Russian Far East. Controllers who work in Western Russia train at Mayflower College in Plymouth, England.


"The Soviet Union was previously closed to commercial airspace -- they didn't have to worry about English," said Tim Burke, spokesman for the North Dakota's Center for Aerospace Sciences. "Now, they have to come to grips with the English situation."


That coming to grips takes place in 10-week classes of between 20 and 24 students. The first half of the program is classwork; the second half is real-world training at a simulator. The course does not create brilliant conversationalists, but it does produce safer air traffic controllers.


To force the students to speak English outside of the classroom, they live with American families and take their morning and evening meals with their hosts. There is also time for sports and,of course, shopping, Burke said. The U.S. airline industry considers these classes vitally important. Their trade group, the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association, was so eager to get English into Russian control towers that they funded the first two classes in North Dakota. Jack Ryan, the transport association's vice president for air traffic management, put the price tag between $700,000 and $800,000.


"Early on, we knew that the English-language capacity was going to be a problem, so that's why we started to train controllers back in 1992, before the routes were even open," Ryan said. "We think it's a good investment."


One of the first supporters of the English-language training was Northwest Airlines, the largest U.S. air carrier in the North Pacific and the first to fly a commercial airline through the Russian Far East. Captain Bob Buley, assistant to the vice president for flight operations, estimates that Northwest has more than a dozen flights a day between North America and Asia. Every time a flight can cross Russian airspace, it saves money. Not only is the distance shorter over Russia, but favorable winds increase fuel economy.


"We're in a deregulated environment in the U.S. Any incremental improvement we can make in efficiency, to us is significant," Buley said. "We could be talking, for carriers that use the North Pacific routes -- not just Northwest -- roughly $80 million a year in benefits."


Dennis Cooper, who represents the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in Moscow, said language has not yet been a safety problem in the skies over Russia. And Kuzminov, of Rosaeronavigatsia, can only remember one time when, due to a missed preposition, a plane was sent to 400 feet rather than 2,400 feet.


The Moscow Air Traffic Control Center -- which is responsible for airspace the size of France and Italy combined -- is headquartered adjacent to Vnukovo Airport on the outskirts of Moscow. Of the 650 air traffic controllers who work there, about half speak English, said Vasily Kustov, first deputy director of the center.


"I can't really say they're fluent, but according to the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization, they speak English," he said. "It's our task to make sure that all our dispatchers can speak English."


So far, the Moscow control center has sent about 200 of its controllers to study at Mayflower College. The course lasts a month, and costs about ?1,500 pounds ($2,350) per person. It is expensive, but then again, so are accidents.


"The higher your level of English, the higher your level of safety," said Kustov. "I think safety is worth the price of any contract."


The challenge, Kustov said, is not just in learning English but understanding all the different "Englishes" out there.


Viktor Mironov could not agree more. He has been a controller at Moscow Center for 13 years and has heard it all.


"It's not just Englishmen flying up there," he said. "There are Frenchmen too, with lousy pronunciation." The Chinese and Koreans, he said, take the prize for the worst pronunciation, and the Germans win for the best among non-native speakers.


British and American pilots, too, "speak completely different languages," Mironov said. And while the British are highly disciplined -- they don't waste a word, Mironov said -- the Americans cannot compare.


"American pilots are chatterboxes," Mironov said.