At the time of my retirement in 1999, controllers in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece typically spoke to their native pilots in their native language in spite of the fact that English was/is the international language of aviation and is specified as such by ICAO. Not following the ICAO convention deprived non-native speaking pilots of valuable situational information.

Does anyone know if any of the aforementioned countries have come around to having their controllers always speak English?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Isn't it the same in the US :-) $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Apr 20, 2015 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ I do not understand why limit the scope of this question only to those 4 languages. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Apr 20, 2015 at 7:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico Of the countries I was flying into regularly, those were the only four wherein the controllers were using their native languages. In the far east, middle east, and Africa they conformed to the ICAO recommendation of the time. Russia was an exception, but that was understandable because it hadn't been long enough since the cold war had ended for the controllers to learn acceptable English. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Apr 20, 2015 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ Pilots who fly to these countries should be aware of this and try to learn some language basics $\endgroup$
    – orique
    Apr 21, 2015 at 6:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I know there was at least one incident on Avherald in Spain where they were speaking Spanish to the Spanish carriers, and English to the foreign ones, and there was a loss of situational awareness between the two. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Apr 21, 2015 at 22:36

3 Answers 3


Well, I just pulled up LEMD on LiveATC and heard some Spanish there. So Madrid clearly speaks Spanish sometimes, although it's probably not very busy right now (5:30 AM there). Archives from midday for LFPO and LFBD (Orly and Bordeaux) have plenty of French. Archives from midday for LGAV (Athens) approach has something definitely non-English (I can't tell if it's Greek or not, but I can't imagine anything else it'd be); LGAV has heavy use of English, but it's not exclusively English. And LiveATC has no feeds for Italy. So, for three of them the answer is definitely "yes, they still speak not-English;" for the last, LiveATC can't answer.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Greek controllers greet Greek airline pilots in Greek and the rest of the navigation communication takes place in English. Specific local information messages might also be transmitted in Greek between Greek speaking participants. $\endgroup$
    – A_A
    Apr 20, 2015 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ In Italy, airline traffic speaks english, but VFR/military/BAT/HEMS routinely speak both. English is mandated any time there is a non-IT speaker on frequency, otherwise IT is allowed, IIRC. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2021 at 16:08

As per ICAO Annex 10PDF, it is no longer a recommendation, but a requirement that all controllers be able to speak English with an ICAO language proficiency of at least level 4. ICAO Annex 10 states: Language to be used The air-ground radiotelephony communications shall be conducted in the language normally used by the station on the ground or in the English language. Note 1.— The language normally used by the station on the ground may not necessarily be the language of the State in which it is located. A common language may be agreed upon regionally as a requirement for stations on the ground in that region. Note 2.— The level of language proficiency required for aeronautical radiotelephony communications is specified in the Appendix to Annex 1. The English language shall be available, on request from any aircraft station, at all stations on the ground serving designated airports and routes used by international air services. The languages available at a given station on the ground shall form part of the Aeronautical Information Publications and other published aeronautical information concerning such facilities.

This however doesn't mean that countries cannot still work with their own language and countries like France still work IFR & VFR traffic in their local langauge, whereas some countries like Germany limit German to VFR traffic and emergencies, where plain language can be used. IFR traffic in Germany is conducted in English only.


In France pilots and ATC have to speak french if they are French

This is described in the radiotelephony procedure https://www.sia.aviation-civile.gouv.fr/dossier/texteregle/RADIOTEL_V2.pdf section 2.4

2.4 Use of French language: The French language is used (except for training purposes or particular cases) between French pilot and ATC

The rules of air indicates that the ATC must be able to speak english if they have to deal with international traffic.


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