Human error in aviation: An introduction

Human Error

To this day the majority of aviation accidents are attributed in some way, to some form of human error. Surprising when you consider all the effort and expense put into management, research, training and the development of new technologies such as automation. Yes, safety has vastly improved over the last 50 years, making flying one of the safest methods of getting around our planet. But still human error related accidents occur.

What is human error?

Errare Humanum Est- To Err is Human


“Planned actions that fail to achieve their desired consequences without the intervention of some chance or unforeseeable agency” (Reason, 1990, p.17).

Types of human error

The simplest catergorisation of human error would be to split them into errors of omission or commission (Kern, 1998).

  • Omission - Errors of omission occur when crew members fail to carryout a required task.
  • Commision - Errors of commission occur when crew members carryout a task incorrectly or do something that is not required.

Later researchers further differentiated human error as (Strauch, 2004: Reason, 1990);

  • Slips - Which occur as the result of minor errors of execution.
  • Lapses - Which occur when a pilot becomes distracted and doesn’t complete a task or omits a step whilst performing it.
  • Mistakes - Which occur when actions conform to an inadequate plan.
  • Violations - Which occur where actions deviate from safe procedures standards or rules, be they deliberate or erroneous.

Antecedents to human error

Reason (1990) also affirmed the idea that the operators, those who commit errors, do not do so in a vacuum. For instance pilots may be consciously attempting to perform perfectly, but human errors can still coccur. This is because other factors, or antecedents, can influence the operator’s performance (Strauch, 2004). These antecedents can include;

  • Other operators,
  • The environment,
  • The equipment being used,
  • National cultures,
  • Organisational cultures.

Errors in Aviation

There are three main areas in aviation, of interest to human factors professionals and managers who wish to understand and reduce human error.

Managing Error in Aviation

Traditional ideas

Early psychological researchers regarded people who erred as being less effective due to unconscious drives. A theory that tainted early research on human error. Approaches to human error rectification and management tending to centre on blame, training and quite possibly punishment (McDonald, 2003).

Modern models and methods.

Based on the work by resesearches such as Reason, Helmreich, and many others, there are now a wide number of models and methods avialable for managing human error and performance in aviation. the following list details some of more significant ones and provides links for further reading.

  • Single Pilot Resource Management (SPRM) - SPRM is similar to CRM but focuses more on situational awareness, time and workload management, aeronautical decision making and automation management.
  • Threat and Error Management (TEM) - A model developed to help understand, and explain, the interaction between safety and human performance, within an operational context.
  • Safety Cultures - The attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share with regard to workplace safety.
1. KERN, T. (1998). Flight discipline. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2. McDONALD, N. (2003). Culture, systems and change in aircraft maintenance organisation. In G. EDKINS & P. PFISTER (Eds.), Aviation: Selected contributions to the Australian Aviation Psychology Symposium 2000. (pp. 39-57). Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
3. REASON, J. (1990). Human error. New York: Cambridge University Press.
4. STRAUCH, B. (2004). Investigating human error: Incidents, accidents and complex systems. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Want to know more?

Pilot Error
An external link to examples of aircraft accidents attributable to pilot errors
'The Dirty Dozen'
A Transport Canada campaign aimed at highlighting 12 elements which may produce maintenance errors.
Maintenance Error Decision Aid; Boeing Site
An external link to an article about the MEDA investigation process.

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