Estonian off the air ... or not

Lennujuhtimiskeskus Tallinna lennujaamas.

PHOTO: Toomas Huik

A couple of weeks ago, Riigikogu ratified a law whereby English only will be used in radio communication in Estonian airspace. Yesterday, the President proclaimed the Act, but before its entry into force officials are attempting to bring the Estonian language back by a new bill.

At the beginning of October, a bill to amend Aviation Act was initiated, prepared by economy and communication ministry. In December, the ministry added amendment proposal regarding section 231 paragraph 5, the wording of which was: «Radio communication in aviation needs to be guaranteed in Estonian or English». The Act entering into force on November 1st this year has only English left.

The ministry substantiated proposed amendment by Estonia having joined North European Functional Airspace Block (NEFAB) treaty, the council of which has decided by end of 2015 to switch to a single language radio communication. As decided by the council, in NEFAB airspace radio communication ought to be in English only.

Last week, Estonian Air Navigation Services board member Üllar Salumäe said he was in favour of doing away with Estonian in radio communication as a way to reduce risk of misunderstanding. Not all agree and this Tuesday Estonian Air Line Pilots Association (ELA) declared that English-only radio communication in Estonia would not enhance flight safety and that improved international cooperation is not reason enough.

«ELA thinks communication error risk is not high in Estonia as the air traffic is not very frequent and most of Estonian pilots usually use English in the controlled airspace. In the non-controlled airspace, however, they mainly speak Estonia – but then, very rarely do foreign pilots fly there,» explained ELA head Helen Reinhold.

In her assessment, the level of English spoken by Estonian pilots and controllers is rather above the European average; however, she underlined there may always be the situations where mother tongue is the best solution.

Finding fault with those who prepared the bill, ELA says these have not sufficiently consulted with parties involved.

The ministry’s fight department head Gerli Rebane who also prepared the bill admitted the amendment could have been executed better.

«The amendment was not entered in a timely manner. I admit it ought to have inserted it into the bill earlier. We had assumed the obligation for 2015, now opportunity presented itself to have the problem solved within this bill,» explained Ms Rebane, underlining that in November the council of NEFAB again reminded member states of the necessity of single language radio communication.

Riigikogu Economic Affairs Committee chairman Arto Aas (Reform Party) said he was unpleasantly surprised hearing the bill had offended the pilots.

«Frankly, it was an unpleasant surprise for me to read in the newspaper that a problem has arisen. If the ones who initiated the bill failed to take note of something, then it seems to me the new membership of the Riigikogu needs to tweak the law,» said Mr Aas.

«I understand that the officials who wrote and compiled the bill have, in the 25th hour, realised their error. It seems there are other issues as well, there. The new Riigikogu membership can open the law again in the spring,» he predicted.

Criticism by pilots spurred the ministry into rapid action.

«We will definitely not try to force the law and, in the end, we want to reach a solution satisfactory to all those involved,» said the ministry’s fight department head Ms Rebane. «For us, resistance to the switch to English comes as a surprise because the major part of radio communication already happens in English. We could not assess the impact would be so great. This is a lesson to us. A bit too late, but thankfully we will manage to correct it if needed.»

Ms Rebane said she planned to again consult the parties involved. A preliminary plan is to maintain Estonian language radio communication option in uncontrolled airspace and below the flight level 95 i.e. under 9,500 feet. In the ministry’s estimation, such amendment should satisfy the private pilots most concerned by the loss of Estonian from radio communication.

Asked when the ministry intends to suggest amendment to the law freshly amended, Ms Rebane replied: «As soon as the President proclaims the law, we will immediately issue the new proposal.»

Aviation Act

A four-month proceeding

  • October 6th 2014 Introduced
  • October 7th 2014 Accepted
  • November 3rd 2014 Committee session. proposal: add to plenary agenda
  • November 12th 2014 Regular plenary meeting. Decision: fist reading concluded
  • December 5th 2014 Amendment proposals by economy and communication ministry
  • January 13th 2015 Committee session. Proposal: add to plenary agenda
  • January 21st 2015 Regular plenary meeting. Decision: second reading concluded
  • January 28th 2015 Regular plenary meeting. Decision: ratified
  • January 29th 2015 Sent to President of the Republic
  • February 12th 2015 President proclaims the law
  • November 1st 2015 The law enters into force