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Home > Air Crash > Avianca Flight 52: Why the pilots failed to use the proper phraseology?
Avianca Flight 52: Why the pilots failed to use the proper phraseology?
Aviation - Air Crash
Sunday, 19 October 2008 23:04
Dear Captain Lim,

I have some questions regarding the crash of Avianca Flight 52 on January 25, 1990 in the New York's JFK International Airport. 

Why did the pilots fail to use the word 'emergency' and instead used the word 'priority' when they knew they were running low on fuel?

Why didn't they use their reserves to divert to Boston - their alternate airport? 

What could have been done to prevent this accident?  Who was to be blamed for this crash?


Out of Fuel - Avianca Flight 052

Hi Evans,

The crew of the Colombian flight was a little handicapped as they were not very fluent in English and did not use the proper phraseology to express their urgency when they were running short of fuel. Had they declared a "Low on Fuel" emergency, they probably would not have ended the way they did. This was one of the reasons why all pilots who fly internationally today must pass an English Proficiency Test prior to being issued with a flying license.

Normally the captain must make a decision to proceed to his alternate - Boston, before he reaches the "minimum diversion fuel" (MDF) state. If his fuel has gone below the MDF, then he was committed to land at JFK. Perhaps he was lulled into believing that he could land after holding for a while. In fact, the weather got worse and he could not see the runway after the second attempt. (See the full video here)

Earlier, because of bad weather, the controllers held the plane firstly for 20 minutes in the Norfolk area and then ordered it to circle for another 40 minutes more over New York. The jet aborted its first landing effort and was circling for a second attempt when it crashed. Had the captain declared a fuel emergency - this would have required the controllers to immediately wave off other aircraft and cleared him for an immediate landing.

According to the investigators, the probable cause of the crash was due to the failure of the flight crew to adequately monitor their fuel state in view of the deteriorating weather and their failure to communicate an emergency fuel situation to air traffic control before it ran out of fuel.


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Comments (19)

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... , Low-rated comment [Show]
Stating "low on fuel is an extreme understatement given the severity of the situation. The flight crew failed to be assertive and make their situation known. I don't think this was as much of a language problem.
SJB , 27 May, 2009
not educated
obviously the comment above me does not understand things like formality and hierarchy in other languages and the different ways people in other languages communicate.

the columbian crew felt as if they were lower towards ATC, meaning that their language had to be considered "talking to superiors" in columbian way of thinking.

it is not a matter of them being assertive, it is a matter of respect within a culture.

it is proven that the crash of Avicana Flight 52 was because of a language indifference between the American ATC and Columbian pilots.

read ch.7 of Malcom Gladwell's book, Outliers, for a better understanding of communication and cultural barriers.

--- , 13 Aug, 2009
Lies. the truth , Low-rated comment [Show]
Air Traffic Control Specialist, JFK Approach (retired)
On days with bad weather, everyone holds. They schedule 80 or so flights an hour based on good weather, but when the weather turns, the flights come anyway and you all get delayed.

It is not uncommon to have thirty airplanes arriving after a storm, in which ten declare "Minimum Fuel". This sounds, to you, like a fuel emergency, but it is defined by the aviation regs as "A condition requiring no undue delay, however, not a fuel emergency". Avianca would NOT declare a fuel emergency. Additionally, on the first approach, the crew was so backed off on the airspeed you can hear the Stall Warning in the background, and, the pilots aborted the approach, ATC did NOT pull them out. To do a legal approach on RWY 22 at JFK, you need to take the aircraft at least about 10 or 12 miles north again to give him an adequate chance to line up with the runway. He did not have enough fuel to make the second attempt.

There were definite language issues with the crew of that flight. I am sorry for all who died or were injured but this crash was not in any way the fault of the controllers. Everyone else landed that night. The weather was above most air carrier minima. The captain of this flight should have declared an emergency when he had enough fuel to make it somewhere.
V. Starr , 20 Nov, 2009
The Reason
The pilots of the Avianca 52 were kind of like in a disobeying way, the captain told the Maurice Klotz in Colombian to advise ATC that they are in an emergency, but instead Maurice said "Climbing 3000 and were running out of fuel" the captain also started to go hard on the co-pilot.
Anson Lee , 27 Nov, 2009
unprepared controler , Low-rated comment [Show]
you lot citing malcolm gladwell are wrong. Malcolm basically says that it is because of the co-pilot's upbringing and culture that he was not assertive. While that is not his fault, obviously the co-pilots have to be trained to deal with these cultural barriers. I am to this day amazed that when the pilot yelps, "Tell him we are in an emergency," that the co-pilot's first words to ATC were something about their flight path and then sort of in a matter of fact way talks about being they are low in fuel. I understand cultural language barriers and all but this is taking it to the extreme. I think the co-pilot was overwhelmed and while the blame is to be shared by all parties involved, the majority lies with the co-pilot.
Drew , 20 Apr, 2010
The hand-over (or 2 hand-overs) of the Avianca plane from one controller to the next controller (/shift) also played an important roll in this miscommunication trail.
Joseph , 29 Apr, 2010
B737 1st Officer, American Airlines
My addition to this thread is a bit lengthy, and would not post in it's entirety. I am posting it in parts.


Wow! There are some very interesting comments on this topic.

Respectfully, as a professional aviator with a combine total of 22 years military and civilian pilot experience, I would like to add my insights.

The Avianca accident was indeed a tragic situation.

But one of the things that professionals learn quickly in this business is that there are basically two agendas to accident investigation in the free world. There are parties who are VERY interested in affixing BLAME. And the are parties who are very interested in being objective, so that the most wisdom can be gained from the high cost of human tragedy.

The airlines that operate and maintain an aircraft & screen and train pilots on the operation of that specific aircraft....and then the manufacturers who build the aircraft. These two entities are ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS extremely focused on reducing the economic cost of legal liability.

The federal government in most countries has an agency that oversees the investigation of aviation accidents. In most cases, the expertise gained by the manufacturers (i.e - "Boeing", "Airbus", etc.), and the operators ("American", "Avianca", etc) is valued as an additional resource in determining exactly what went wrong.

The only problem is that the desire to blame someone else, rather than facing criminal and/or civil penalties is a very powerful force!

Steve Wiggins , 06 May, 2010
PC9 Captain
In my proffessional career as a pilot we use a 'Joker' fuel, the fuel reqd to fly to your intended destination and conduct an approach, not get visual and conduct the missed approach, and divert to your alternate airport and land safely. It was here called Minimum Divert Fuel (MDF).

If for some reason you go below this figure (ie. unforeseen holding due ATC, weather etc.), you must IMMEDIATELY divert to your alternate airport, otherwise in the event that you conduct a missed approach you no longer have the fuel reqd to divert and risk not ever getting visual at your intended destination.

In this case it is primarily the Flight Engineer's responsibility to monitor this fuel state, something that was not done on Flight 52.

Aircraft never plan to land with exactly zero fuel, but a fixed minimum reserve. If you anticipate landing with less than this you MUST declare MINIMUM FUEL, not 'low fuel', 'losing fuel' or any other phrase. If you anticipate landing with an even lower amount (exact amount depends on the aircraft type) then you MUST declare a MAYDAY, again not 'low fuel', 'prority' or anything else. This may seem trivial to those outside the aviation industry, but we use standard phrases to avoid confusion just like in this case. It doesn't matter if Auntie Fernando from Colombia believes that saying 'priority' is an emergency, the Co-Pilot of Flight 52 never declared an emergency.

The Captain of the aircraft is always ultimately responsible for all facets of the flight, however he depends on his crew to help and back him up.
MT , 06 Jun, 2010
Frequent Flier
Avianca does not train its pilots very well. Most are dismally poor in English. The Avianca pilots were using phrasiology that would be interpreted an an emergency in the Spanish language. They were not trained to use the wording "emergency."

I try to fly only on airlines from English speaking countries. I am also worried about the English proficiency of air traffic controllers in non-English sppeaking countries. Absolute English proficiency should be a prerequisite for being an airline pilot or an air traffic controller.

The language barrier was the culprit in this accident.freight
Hunter Hutchinson , 05 Jun, 2012
The pilots did have problems with English communications and a poor judgment , because they could take the alternate of Boston in this situation and avoid the accident , so , lack of communication and training !
Luis Albert , 03 Jul, 2012
Avianca pilots are frequently former Columbia military pilots, and that is the bottom of the barrel.
Drug runners are what keeps Avianca in business and draws away the best pilots, why work for an airline at $25kY when one can make 1/4th the runs and get $125kY?
Money is nearly always the issue.
And, as can be expected, drugs were found at the crash site.
When there are "issues" one tends to be more quiet about things.
Boston did not have "friendlies" and an emergency WOULD draw unwanted attention.
There are boxes that the food trays come in.
In theory the trays are slid back into the slots once done.
Passengers bring carry on that gets put in that box.
Slide several trays on top of each other and only 2 slots are needed, the rest now being extra room.
This war on drugs has proven to be a total failure and things like this will continue to happen until the laws get changed.
Cowthief , 09 Jul, 2012
Observer, native Spanish speaker
After reading the transcript of the communications, it appears that the captain's English proficiency was poor, and relied on the F.O. - a younger fellow more proficient in English. This handicap proves to be very costly indeed.

The angle of drugs on board and "friendlies" - although disquieting, it appears to be a valid one based on the evidence.

By the way, Avianca is an air carrier from Colombia, not Columbia, and there is no such thing as "Columbian", but merely Spanish.
Ark Vadik , 19 May, 2013
I just finished watching the Avianca Flight 52 episode and I'm left feeling very angry that the co-pilot copped the blame for the crash.

The whole situation was like playing Jenga, where the blocks are information. In the end, so many blocks had been removed, that the whole thing came tumbling down. My questions:

1. Why did air traffic control not ask for the fuel status of the plane BEFORE putting it into a holding pattern?

2. WHY did the first flight traffic controller - who had JUST BEEN TOLD BY THE FIRST OFFICER that they were running out of fuel! - NOT tell the second controller this vital piece of information? The second controller had no idea the plane was low, and the pilots assumed that the controllers had communicated.

3. Why did the Flight Engineer not tell the pilot that their approach was their ONLY chance and they could NOT go around again?

4. Why did the controllers at JFK NOT warn of wind shear?

5. At what point does "we don't have enough fuel to make it to Boston" not tell air traffic control that this plane is getting pretty tight on fuel? Come on people.

6. After being told "we're running out of fuel" in an increasingly desperate tone of voice, and then "we've lost an engine!", WHY DID THE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER NOT DO ANYTHING? He didn't clear them for priority landing, he didn't call out the emergency services, nothing!

7. Why did the pilot and crew, having learned of the situation at JFK, not immediately turn for Boston?

8. Why was the first officer placed in such a situation that he had three people (the pilot, the engineer, and the air traffic controller) yelling at him at once?
k , 01 Oct, 2013
Improper Phraseology
Well the thing is every flight will be low on fuel at the time of landing. The first officer actually told something like "I'd like some more coffee and I am choking on a chicken bone". Its a communication glitch and the first officer is at fault
Mean , 01 Mar, 2014
Priority in Spanish
I speak Spanish. The co-pilot used the word "Priority" to describe his situation to the controller. In Spanish, priority would be the same as declaring an emergency, because priority (in Spanish) means we need immediate attention, right now, right away, without delay. Unfortunately in English, the word priority means to be taken care of as soon as you can, as soon as you get the chance,pretty soon. There is a stark difference between English & Spanish in the meaning of the word "Priority". The co-pilot, with Spanish as his primary language did think he was declaring an emergency when he used the word priority, because it carries that meaning in Spanish. A sad mistake that could have been avoided & is avoided by understanding the proper terminology in the present day.
Sandy , 01 Oct, 2014
"Priority" was not mentioned until two of the engines had already run out of fuel. Before that, "running out of fuel" was the expression used. "Running out of fuel" is plenty urgent; the controller knew that. For the pilots to climb up to 3000' was not necessary; they could have requested minimum vectoring altitude and remained near the airport. When the controller asked if flying out 15 miles northeast would be "fine" with their fuel state, answering "I guess so. Thank you very much." was incorrect.
Mark , 19 Apr, 2015

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