Complacency in Aviation

Complacency in Aviation

Picture embedded from Krazy-Katz on 28 Sep 09

According to Wiener, "Complacency is caused by the very things that should prevent accidents, factors like experience, training and knowledge contribute to complacency. Complacency makes crews skip hurriedly through checklists, fail to monitor instruments closely or utilize all navigational aids. It can cause a crew to use shortcuts and poor judgement and to resort to other malpractices that mean the difference between hazardous performance and professional performance." [1]

Fahlgren and Hagdahl defined complacency as "A mental state where an aviator acts, unaware of actual danger or deficiencies. He still has the capacity to act in a competent way - but for some reason, or another, this capacity is not activated. He has lost his guard without knowing it". [2]

When complacency sets in, you never know the danger you are putting in the lives of many…

In our typical daily life, complacency plays a major threat that could harm and ruin relationships. Take the case of a married couple living for years. When one of them becomes complacent, the other party might feel uninterested, bored and dissatisfied which could eventually end up to broken relationships. A child on the other hand, doing repetitive activity without proper parental guidance, could also get bored and end up exploring other things to his detriment.

Complacency is a sense of being satisfied, secured and contented unaware of the potential danger it could bring. It has no room in any relationship and definitely a grave threat at work. As the famous American playwright Eugene O' Neill once said, "A man's work is in danger of deteriorating when he thinks he has found the one best formula for doing it. If he thinks that, he is likely to feel that all he needs is merely to go on repeating himself … so long as a person is searching for better ways of doing his work, he is fairly safe."

Complacency might seem to be a simple word but the effects it could bring might mean disaster. It arises when one becomes very familiar with the work he is doing that it becomes repetitive, monotonous and the work becomes "robotic".

In aviation, complacency has been a major concern and is, time and again, a major contributing factor in many unwarranted accidents caused basically by human factors. Complacency is one of the Dirty Dozen that is part of every Human Factors training. Complacency, among the rest of the Dirty Dozen, posts potential threat that should be given significant emphasis.

Take the case of an aircraft maintenance crew who does checks on aircraft. Every night he should check the aircraft's hydraulic oil. But because he has become accustomed that the hydraulic oil normally lasts for a week before refilling, he skips the process unaware that there was already a leak that caused an engine inflight shutdown. Had the crew followed the routine check, this unwarranted incident could have not happened. There is this famous saying, "An ounce of prevention is much greater than a pound of cure." Shortcuts in the aviation world is a big No-No and in all cases must not be practised. Following correct routine checks, SBs, manuals and standard procedures guarantees safe flight, assures business productivity and lessens expenditures, vis-a-vis, customer satisfaction, security and trust.

Types of Complacency [3]

Task Induced Complacency

  • Occurs after a high key period of intense, mental stimulating and skill induced workload
  • Now, operating in a low key setting, and having the mindset that the "worst is over",
  • Tasks faced seem routine and mundane
  • Hence, vigilance is reduced significantly and guard is let down
  • Lulled into a complacent state, personnel forget certain details performing their tasks
  • Not able to react appropriately to new and sudden injects
  • Large volume of work that could result in personnel skipping some procedures while small volume of work could bore a personnel unmindful of the work at hand

Examples: Pilots after a long, haul flight in threacherous weather conditions, on final approach in good weather, carries out a wheels up landing

In ATC, after a heavy session, directing continuous traffic flow into and out of the terminal area, now faced with only two aircraft in the airspace forgets to monitor the height altitudes properly leading to a confliction

Organization induced complacency

  • Management plays an important role in preventing complacency
  • Due to poor management in which the modus operandi is failing to hold people accountable for their wrong actions at work
  • Due to management becoming satisfied with mediocre performances
  • Workers might have the propensity to break rules and take short cuts in performing their tasks as they will not be punished
  • This working style, now becomes a norm
  • This permits non-productive workers to continue working and keep making errors
  • Personnel stop reporting errors, mistakes at work
  • Productive workers who are creative and care for the company will soon also become complacent at their tasks
  • Good performing employees are not compensated or appreciated well while poor performing employees get away with it

Example: Lazy maintenance personnel who do slipshod work in a short amount of time, hence finishing their mistake ridden tasks of the day can go home early and at the same time earn the same pay as dedicated workers.

These dedicated workers who are meticulous and work long hours to ensure rectification of aircraft is proper will soon also develop the wrong attitude since management is not penalising the errors and behaviour that are occuring.

Fatigue/Stress induced complacency

  • Faced either with fatigue, stress due to external factors such as insuficient sleep and marital problems
  • Workers are not in the right frame of mind to work
  • They are not as meticulous and pay less attention to certain seemingly mundane tasks
  • They become complacent and start beginning to see or hear what he expects to see or hear at a given scenario instead of what is actually transpiring in the real time scenario
  • A personnel is experiencing personal or work-related problems that disrupt and prevent his rational mind to function properly

Examples: A fatigued pilot lining up on the runway, expects a take off clearance and upon hearing the controller's voice assumes its for take off and fails to hear and readback ATC clearance properly, proceeds to take off with a vehicle on runway

In the same context, a stressed controller upon telling pilot to line up and wait, neglects to look at the aircraft and remains fixated on the vehicle on runway, as he expects the pilot to wait and not to take off

Dependency and complacency

  • Occurs when working alongside personnel known to be capable, dependable and proficient at their jobs
  • Although all workers are doing similar tasks, tendency will be to become lazy and complacent
  • Feeling and misplaced confidence that because co-worker is is the consumate professional, he will be able to catch any of your mistakes
  • Hence you do not do your own work properly and conscientiously, relying on your co-worker
  • The personnel depends on his work partner or superior to check his work allowing him to become relax

Examples: In maintenance, ATC or in a cockpit environment, there is a tendency to neglect basic duties and not following proper SOPs as you feel that there is always a partner that is up to speed to counter check for you.

Automation and complacency

  • Advancements in technology in the workplace has ironically bred complacency
  • There is now a change in the roles from main operators in control of the systems to merely supervisory roles
  • Personnel take less ownership as they are lulled to thinking that the computer will not make mistakes and will perform everything well
  • Personnel relies so much on machines and computers to do the job correctly. In this age and time where technology is already advanced and automation is largely accepted, human intervention should always be a prime factor at work.

Example: Not monitoring instruments/ gauges in the cockpit properly and even if it is sending out wrong signals, failure to act on it as the computer is more sophisticated and is always right.

Symptoms of Complacency [4]

  • Accepting Lower Standards of Work Performance
  • Degradation of feeling to remain knowledgeable and proficient at work
  • Increased Boredom and Inattention to tasks
  • Accepting and Satisfied with current conditions at work
  • Increased Feeling of Well Being even if tasks are building up
  • Neglecting important safety itinery at work

Countering complacency [3]


  • Keeping oneself aware of the surrounding situation by rehearsing in the mind the consequences of complacency by reading accident reports of your profession
  • Keeping abreast of the situation and surroundings and all related incidents and reports can give you an idea on how to prevent future mistakes


  • Adopting a positive attitude by becoming more professionally involved at work, reading up to date materials to level up one's own knowledge
  • Maintaining the Right/Positive Attitudes at work


  • Going through contingency checklists and repeating them so as to avoid hearing/ seeing what you expect to hear/see
  • As the old cliche, hope for the best but expect the worst. This is not being pessimistic but having foresight gives us leeway to prevention of error
  • This can be done by saying these checklists aloud


  • Even if deemed proficient, go through different training and seek to improve yourself by asking other people who may know more and offer a different insight
  • Recurrent training to hone one's skills and refresh knowledge
  • Training different scenarios so that one is well equipped in dealing with them
  • Management plays important role here where employees should be given recurrent, development trainings in order to motivate them and become proficient and diligent at work. This also boosts the morale of employees. As the famous Mao Tse Tung once said, "Complacency is the enemy of study." So it is critical to have continuous trainings and developments in order to combat complacency

New challenges

  • Create challenges for yourself by working with another person in competing who will make the least mistakes and trying to catch the other person's mistakes will improve standards and reduce complacency
  • Challenging oneself and his performance creates the feeling of wanting to improve oneself and motivates to do better each and everytime, leaving no room for complacency

Ask What If

  • Ask what if this goes wrong when performing tasks, so that the mind is stimulated and mentally prepared to deal with unforseen scenarios
  • This means having foresight and being mentally prepared at any given time and unforeseen incidents

Critique yourself

  • Continuously critique own performance by striving for the perfect way to do things
  • Constantly trying to better one self in getting things done
  • Trying to be the critic of one's work creates a room for self-improvement and development

Physical fitness

  • Good physical fitness levels builds up the necessary endurance to protect against stress/ fatigue induced complacency so that good decisions can be made and small details are not neglected
  • Being physically fit lessens the effects of stress and pressures and produces a person to be attentive at work


In conclusion, in our daily dealings with life, we should never be complacent and lax otherwise we put our relationships in extreme pit of danger. At work, particularly in our field, aviation personnel should never let complacency set in. Not only we endanger our work or profession, but also the company and customers for whom we work for but on the larger scale, we will be putting in danger the aviation industry and the lives of many people who rely on us. There is no greater policy than following the norm, the standard operating procedures. As the saying goes in aviation “Millions of lives depend on us”.

1. Wiener, E.L. (1981). "Complacency: Is the term useful for air safety?" In Proceedings of the 26th Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar. Denver, CO: Flight Safety Foundation.
2. Fahlgren, G and Hagdahl, R. (1990). "Complacency" Proceedings of the 43rd Annual International Air Safety Seminar, Rome, Italy: Flight Safety Foundation.
3. Jensen, R.S. (1995). Pilot Judgment and Crew Resource Management. Avebury Aviation.
4. Grey Owl Aviation Consultants INC. (1997). Complacency. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 28 Sep 2009.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License