Cockpit/cabin communication: the cause of the ineffective communication between the cockpit and cabin crews


A lack of effective communication between the cockpit crew and cabin crew may restrain the flow of safety-critical information which can prevent the happening of aviation accident or incident. Some investigators found that recently several accidents and a large number of incidents were caused by a lack of communication between cockpit crew and cabin crews, in where for whatever reasons cabin crews failed to deliver the safety-critical information to the flight deck or their delivered information was ignored by pilots. One case that probably represents this situation is the accident of Air Ontario F-28 (Chute & Wiener, 1996).


On March10, 1989. A Fokker F-28-1000 Fellowship operated by Air Ontario (Flight 1363) from Thunder By to Winnipeg via Dryden crashed upon take-off from Dryden, Canada, due to ice and snow building on the wings; the accident killed 24 people on board (Wikipedia, 2011). However, before the aircraft took off, a stewardess, Sonia Hartwick found that there was snow on the wings, but she failed to convey this vitally operational information to the cockpit. The reason was that she had an ashamed experience from the another flight , where she called the cockpit crew with a safety-related concern, but without polits’ responsiveness. Thus, she thought that the pilots would not be appreciative of the operational information from the flight attendant. Hartwick testified that she perceived that Air Ontario’s management would not like to encourage the flight attendant to voice any operational concerns. She also gave the excessive trust on professionalism of the pilots; she believed they were able to be aware to the entire situation. Likewise, one off-duty airline pilot also realized this situation of snow on the wings, but he did not inform the cockpit crew because he would not like to 'encroach on other pilot’s authority' (Chute et al, 1996).

The causes of the ineffective communication between cockpit crew and cabin crew

The flight attendant’s hesitation

Being afraid to face the possibility of rebuke from pilots and feeling unwelcome of voicing operational concerns to cockpit are the factors which make cabin crew members hesitate to convey the vital information to flight deck. Why is a fully qualified flight attendant reluctant to inform what she considers vital information to the cockpit crew? There could be two possible reasons; one reason is that the flight attendants may fear to face the possibility of reprehension from the pilots, because they are not sure whether the information they reported is correct, helpful, or accepted. Chute and Wiener’s study (1996) found that some of flight attendants are not confident in their ability of describing the parts of plane and mechanical failure of the aircraft. The results, as described in Figure.1, disclose that 58% of responders (125 flight attendants participated the survey) is moderately or less accurate to describe the the parts or malfunction of airplane. Another reason of the flight attendant's hesitation to convey information to cockpit is that flight attendant probably thinks that the pilot is not appreciative of the operational information from the cabin crew, because their past experiences tell them the information they reported may simply be ignored by cockpit due to their lack of responsiveness. (Chute et al, 1996)


Figure1. 125 flight attendants from two airlines participated into the survey, and answered the question of “how confident are you about your ability to accurately describe to the pilots parts or malfunctions of the aircraft that are visible to you (such as the flaps or the horizontal stabilizer)” (Chute et al, 1996, p.8)? The question is come up with a symmetrical distribution across the 5-point scale from the scale of not at all to scale of very. Result reveals that just nearly 20% of the responders feel very confidents about their ability to accurately describe the pilots parts and malfunction of airplane. However, almost 58 % responded moderately or less. (Chute et al, 1996)

Over-emphasis on Sterile Cockpit Rule

Air carrier’s training programs significantly over-emphasize the rule of Sterile Cockpit.1 Sterile cockpit rule states that during a crucial phase of flight (e.g. taxi, take-off, and landing), there is to be no any activity which may distract cockpit crew members. Particularly, ‘nonessential conversations between the pilots and the flight attendants are forbidden’. It is this clause which has made the huge confusion in interpretation by air carriers and fight crew members. They normally interpret this to mean under no circumstances do they distract the cockpit, even though there is an unmanageable cabin situation. Chute and Wiener (1996) argue that “nothing has caused more confusion among cabin crew members than the so-called ‘sterile cockpit’ rule” (p.5). Although the intention of this rule is good, its application has led to flight attendants in fear of breaking the law, and has required them to judge about technical problems that is beyond their professional knowledge (Chute et al, 1996).

Cockpit Skepticism of Cabin Report of Danger

Cockpit crew is sometimes sceptical about the information and the problems reported by flight attendants (Chute et al, 1996).

In 1988, when an American Airlines flight approached into Nashville, one of on board flight attendants and an off-duty first officer informed the flight deck that there was smoke in the cabin, but the captain was sceptical about the their report. On the previous flight, this aircraft had a mechanical problem of auxiliary power unit (APU) that resulted in fumes. This time the problem was caused by the incorrect packaged hazardous materials. Later, the cabin floor was becoming soft, and some of passengers had to be re-seated; the flight attendant hence noticed the captain once again with this more serious condition, but the captain still refused to acknowledge that there was serious problem in the cabin which was threating the safety of aircraft and passengers. No emergency procedures were taken for this jeopardy situation. It consequently resulted in that passengers and crew cannot be immediately evacuated from the airplane on landing, exposing them to threat of smoke and fire longer than necessary. The NTSB determined that the cabin crew adopted CRM techniques well, but the cockpit crew did not. In this case, the NTSB found that “a deficiency in communication between the cockpit and cabin crews and expressed concern about the reluctance by the captain to accept either crew member's report as valid or to seek additional information” (Chute et al, 1996, p.4).

Unfixed team formation and separate briefing

Unfixed team formation and separate briefing for the pilots and the flight attendants are the another cause for ineffective communication between two crews. The high productivity that produced by hub-and spoke operational system has to some extent reduced the crew cohesiveness. It is rarely to see the cabin crew and cockpit crew flying on entire trip together, especially in domestic operation, usually there are several crew alternately a day. Under this situation, the cabin and cockpit crew seldom greet each other due to the fast-paced operation, and there is no enough opportunity for this “temporary team” to improve its cohesiveness. Sometimes “the flight attendants are surprisingly that the pilots (particularly the captain) fail to introduce themselves as they board the aircraft” (cited as Chute et al, 1996, p.3). Although for the international operation the crews may stay together longer, the team is still built on “today’s environment”, crews barely meet each other after the flight. Besides, in some airlines they provide separate rooms (even, two rooms are not at the same level of terminal building) for the cockpit crew and cabin crew for briefing, which significantly reduce the opportunity for two crews' communication.(Chute et al, 1996)

Different chain of command

The inefficient communication between cockpit and cabin crews is also caused by an ambiguous chain of command. Normally, the flight attendants take care of the whole cabin, and the pilots are not engaged in passenger service, except in special circumstance, such as medical emergency. Typically, there is a lead flight attendant (also called as “A line” or Chief) who command the other flight attendants in the cabin. In general, the lead flight attendant has highest authority in cabin crew, and may have responsibility for any important decisions, particular ones relating in safety rather than passenger services. She/ he is also the cabin personnel with whom the cockpit crew need deal with. However, in fact the lead flight attendant does not tend to use much authority: the relationship between lead and other cabin crew members is not constructed as well as the relationship between the captain and other cockpit crew members. “The cabin is organized along a loose chain of command; the lead flight attendant does not, as a strict chain of command would dictate, serve as the exclusive link between cabin and cockpit” (Chute et al, 1996, p.7) Other flight attendants are seldom allowed to walk into the cockpit. The culture of cockpit crew is built upon the basis of military discipline, with clear structure of hierarchy, powerfully enforcing authority lines. The culture of cabin crew tend to be more equalitarian (egalitarian), it is not usual to see that the flight attendants inform a lead flight attendant with the information for the flight deck, rather than reporting it themselves. (Chute et al, 1996)


The section is going to give some of suggests and recommendations for improving the communication between cockpit crew and cabin crew.

Clarification of sterile cockpit rule
The first suggestion is recommended to the FAA to clarify the meaning and enforcement of FAR121.542 in order to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation of the rule; the FAR should give airlines more guidance in application of this rulle (Chute et al, 1996).

Re-examine the training of sterile cockpit rule
In order to reduce the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of sterile cockpit rule to crews, the air carrier also need to clarify the meaning and intention of enforcement of the rule; the training should reemphasize the importance of effective communication for the flight safety, rather than choke legitimate communication. (Chute et al , 1996).

Requirement of joint CRM training
The joint cockpit and cabin crew training is strongly recommended for airlines in order to improve the two crews’ coordination and communication; joint training may provide great opportunity for cockpit crew and cabin crews to communicate and familiarize each other, and to practice their coordination, particularly for the emergency procedure (Chute et al, 1996).

Reemphasize the important the pre-crew briefings
The pre-flight crew briefings given by the captain in-command may increase the flight attendant’s acknowledgement as part of the team, and improve the cohesive relationships between the cockpit and cabin crews (Chute et al, 1996).

The briefing must be concise and comprehensive, an example of what a captain’s briefing may say:

“Let's start with the sterile cockpit policy. Don't you [cabin crew] worry about it! Let me do that. If anything happens that concerns you and you think we should know about it, pick up the phone and give us a call, or come see us. I'll let you know if it's a poor time to talk. We need and want to hear from you” (as cited in Chute et al, 1996, p.11).

Providing aircraft technical training for flight attendants
The technical training can provide the flight attendant the opportunities to learn the basic knowledge of airplane terminology, and give them more confidence of communicating safety critical information to the cockpit, such as being able to describe mechanical parts or malfunctions of the aircraft, and reporting the information in accurate and timely manner (Chute et al, 1996).

Jump seat familiarization flights for cabin crew
An observation flight in the jump seat offers a great opportunity for the flight attendants to familiarize the duties of pilots, especially about the variation in pilot's workload. Chute and Wiener (1996) believe that “jump seat familiarisation has great potential for training and for improving communication between the two crews” (p.13).

Changing the company philosophy concerning flight crew authority (the chain of command)
In order to optimize the coordination between the cockpit and cabin crews, airlines should appoint one of cabin crew member (e.g. lead flight attendant) to engage into the chain of command to the cockpit, and give this crew member with additional responsibility for exclusively serving as the linkage between cabin and cockpit; or airlines may place the cabin crew under the same authority of cockpit, for the sake of consistency in training, policy, and procedure (Chute et al, 1996).


Air Ontario Flight 1363. (2011, August 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
Chute, R. D., & Wiener, E. L. (1996). Cockpit/cabin communication II: Shall we tell the pilots? The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 6(3). 211-231. Retrieved from Google Scholar:

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More introduction about the air crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363 :
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