French pilots swallow hard as they are forced to speak English in own airspace

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France lost a little height yesterday in its battle against the acceptance of English as the universal language. French pilots were ordered to talk English to French air traffic controllers at the country's busiest airport, Paris-Charles de Gaulle.

The decision was taken partly for safety reasons and partly to boost the airport's long-term ambitions to replace Heathrow as the air hub of Europe. In practical terms, it might seem to make little difference. French pilots speak English to control towers at all foreign airports; French controllers speak English to foreign pilots at Charles de Gaulle.

But a section of die-hard Air France pilots is outraged at the idea of Frenchmen talking English to Frenchmen. "L'Anglais. Non!" says a headline in the magazine of one of the many French pilots' unions, Alter.

The union insists its pilots should have the right to "keep speaking French, as before" when talking to French controllers. Until now, Air France has resisted pressure to fall in line with other airlines and accept English as the common language of air traffic control. When in, or over, France, French pilots have spoken French to what they rather romantically call "les aiguilleurs du ciel" (the signalmen of the sky). Even now, the new edict does not apply to other, quieter international airports, such as Orly, to the south of Paris.

Pilots from other countries complain that, at a busy airport like Charles de Gaulle, it is essential to understand all conversations with "control", including those conducted by other pilots on the open airwaves. There has never been an accident, or even an incident, caused by the language problem but Air France accepts that it is now time to "adopt the international standard".

Charles de Gaulle is expanding rapidly and, more importantly, it is the only large airport in Europe still surrounded by agricultural land and capable of extending almost indefinitely. The economic recovery of Air France in recent years has been based, partly, on Charles de Gaulle's capture of traffic from overcrowded airports in London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Air France is reported to have been concerned that obstinacy on the language issue might threaten this expansion.