A Lufthansa Airbus A340-600, registration D-AIHC performing flight LH-542 from Frankfurt/Main (Germany) to Bogota (Colombia), needed to divert to Cali (Colombia) due to weather in Bogota. On approach to Cali ATC instructed LH-542 to hold at MANGA, the crew was unable to find the waypoint in their FMS and queried how to spell that waypoint. ATC, however, could not understand that request and could not spell the waypoint. The LH crew subsequently reported they were unable to hold at MANGA. Communication remained difficult in both directions and several transmissions needed to be retransmitted (“say again”) until being understood by the respective recipient.
An Avianca Brasil (former Oceanair still using that callsign) Airbus A330-200, registration PR-OCK performing flight O6-852 from Sao Paulo Guarulhos, SP (Brazil) to Bogota (Colombia), also diverted to Cali due to weather, the crew heard the exchange between Cali Approach and LH-542 and began to translate between Spanish and English communicating with ATC in Spanish and then relaying the communication to the A340 in (clear) English and vice versa.
Colombia’s Media report that due to the language barrier separation between the two aircraft was lost resulting in a near collision, which prompted Colombia’s AeroCivil (Civil Aviation Authority) to tweet that although there was a “saturation of the control frequency” and pilots detected another aircraft in close proximity, a loss of separation did not occur and operational safety was always assured. An investigation of the occurrence was nonetheless opened to establish all details and issues.
Mode-S Transponder Data show, that the Lufthansa A340-600 entered a hold near Cali at FL240 and subsequently left the hold first landing at Cali about 6 minutes ahead of the A330. The Avianca A330 entered the hold at FL270 arriving from a different direction and after the LH had entered the hold, remained at that level until the LH had descended to FL130, then began their descent and landed safely in Cali about 6 minutes past the A340. The Mode-S data do not suggest any loss of separation at any time.