Pilot Counsel:

Flying internationally?

September 1, 2008

John S. Yodice has served as legal counselor to AOPA since 1963.

This is a reminder and an explanation for those of us who fly internationally using our U.S. (that is, FAA issued) pilot certificate—the FAA is asking that we obtain replacement certificates endorsed with the words “English Proficient.” (See “ Answers for Pilots: English Proficiency,” May AOPA Pilot.) The FAA has established a fast-approaching compliance date of March 5, 2009, and is providing a procedure to accomplish the replacement.

The Convention on International Civil Aviation (often called the Chicago Convention) created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This convention sets out the international law under which we derive our rights and privileges to fly internationally. The convention provides that: “Each contracting State agrees that all aircraft of the other contracting States, being aircraft not engaged in scheduled international air services, shall have the right, subject to the observance of the terms of this convention, to make flights into or in transit nonstop across its territory and to make stops for non-traffic purposes without the necessity of obtaining prior permission, etc.” To facilitate such cross-border operations, certain standards and documentation are required. Pilots must have certificates evidencing that they have been issued by a member state of ICAO and in accordance with ICAO standards. Then they are entitled to the worldwide recognition that the convention provides. Virtually all of the civilized countries of the world are members, including Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas. For those of us who fly our aircraft into other countries, this is where the right comes from.

ICAO has had a long-standing interest in assuring language proficiency for pilots and air traffic controllers. This interest has been spurred by fatal accidents where the lack of proficiency in English was a contributing cause of the accident. ICAO has introduced “language” proficiency requirements in order to ensure that air traffic personnel and pilots are proficient in making and understanding ATC radio communications in the English language, including requirements that the English language be available on request at all stations on the ground serving designated airports and routes used by international air services. Pilots on international flights must have demonstrated language proficiency in either English or the language used by the station on the ground with which they will communicate. This proficiency must be documented.

At first it may seem strange that a U.S. FAA certificate would need an “English Proficient” endorsement, since there is and has been a requirement for an applicant for a U.S. certificate to be able to read, write, speak, and understand English. But the ICAO standard applies worldwide to the mostly non-English speaking member countries. The FAA is facilitating compliance with this ICAO standard by providing for an endorsement of English language proficiency on existing U.S. airman certificates. ICAO standards, as such, are not legally binding on U.S. pilots unless and until the FAA formally promulgates them as rules. So we must emphasize that there is no U.S. rule requiring that pilots operating U.S. registered aircraft within the United States must have an English proficiency endorsement on their U.S. airman certificate. And no such rule is contemplated. But, for U.S. pilots operating internationally, to be assured that a particular foreign county will accept their U.S. certificate (to operate a U.S.-registered aircraft in the country), the lack of the endorsement could become a problem.

The new standard applies to all persons who currently hold a temporary or permanent U.S. private pilot, commercial pilot, airline transport pilot, flight engineer, and flight navigator airman certificate with an airplane or helicopter rating. It does not apply to flight instructor certificates.

The FAA is implementing the standard by making available replacement certificates with the additional endorsement. Since these airmen will have already demonstrated English proficiency to get their certificates, there will be no need to again demonstrate it. No additional tests or qualifications are required. The FAA will issue an endorsed replacement certificate on request. It can be done online through the FAA Web site, or by mail to Federal Aviation Administration, Airmen Certification Branch, AFS-760, Post Office Box 25082, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73125-0082. The signed, written request must include name, date and place of birth, certificate number, the reason you need a replacement (“to obtain the English proficiency endorsement”), and a current address. The cost is $2.

For the few holding a U.S. airman certificate based on a foreign license, for whom the endorsement could be even more important, the procedure is more extensive. It requires an in-person contact with the FAA. If you do not already have a Letter of Verification of Authenticity on file in the Airmen Certification Branch, this is the first step you’ll need to do. You will need to follow the procedures on the Web site. Once you’ve obtained a Letter of Verification, you must apply in person to an FAA FSDO or an FAA International Field Office and you must present positive identification that contains a photograph, the Letter of Verification of Authenticity, and a completed FAA Form 8710-1, Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application.

John S. Yodice