Human Factors in Aviation – A Brief Note

Intro :

Safety in aviation is a central issue for the industry since its early days, and all air transport operations are now built around a core concept of safe operations. Traditionally, humans were mostly blamed for most aircraft accidents and incidents, and many scholars have discussed the issue of human errors and the effects of human behaviours and attitudes, especially dealing or interacting with an advanced technology such as aircraft systems. While the first impression of the notion human factor (HF) in aviation is assumed that it is only concerned with those factors which could take place inside the cockpit, the reality is that human factors within aviation can be developed at any level of the flight operation. This includes management decisions, maintenance short comings, Air Traffic Control (ATC) errors, ground services faults, and any other agents related to the operation of an aircraft. Accordingly, when considering aviation HFs, we must take into account all these aspects of the operation, and not only the actions and behaviours of flight crews.

“Pilot Error” – Fact or Myth?

Traditionally, the aviation industry has considered the pilot as an ideal scapegoat to be blamed for many accidents. The so called “Pilot error” was an easy excuse for many accident’s investigators to seal the deal when investigating such events. It was reported that around 75% of aviation accidents and incidents were attributed to “pilot error” (Editorial, International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 2000). While it is true that some pilots “as humans” do make mistakes, sometimes even devastating and unforgiving ones, however, modern-day investigations have matured, and more sensible outcomes have been achieved. Investigations have moved away from the blame game, ultimately focusing on what went wrong and what caused the accident to happen. The aim is clear, that is to understand the reasons behind the event, and to find a way to prevent a reoccurrence. While this move towards logic and common sense is very welcomed by the aviation industry, the question that remains hanging over is : has the pilot finally been saved from that ugly “pilot error” tag?

HFs Outside the Cockpit :

As noted earlier, there are many other culprits that can create problems in the air. Perhaps, ATC has a greater potential for creating such problems when things go wrong, and they did go wrong in several occasions. I believe, we all heard about those nasty accidents induced by ATC. The worst of them all in recent times was the mid-air collision of two jet liners in 2002 over Überlingen, Germany. No one has survived that accident in both aircraft. The HFs in this accident were hugely linked the ATC personnel who handled the flights and literally has put two aircraft in a collision course. For more info on that accident, please follow this link : . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_%C3%9Cberlingen_mid-air_collision

On the other hand, HFs related to aviation maintenance are yet another contributor to air accidents. The performance of aviation maintenance staff does fluctuate from time to time, depending on many influences such as changes in the department, the nature of inter-communication, failures to follow standard procedures or specifications, and the shortcomings of repair inspections (Editorial, International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 2000). Accordingly, HFs originated by maintenance staff are not different from those of flight crews or ATC. Examples of accidents with HFs elements initiated by maintenance staff are many, however, the accident of Continental Express Flight 2574 in 1991 over Texas is one of the worst. All people aboard that flight have lost their lives after a catastrophic structural failure, which caused the aircraft to disintegrate mid-air. For more info on that accident, Please refer to the following link : . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_Express_Flight_2574.

The Accident / Incident Chain:

Research has shown that most –if not all– air accidents or incidents are not a one-off error caused by flight crews. It is rather a chain of events or accumulative latent errors, which in a certain point of time and place would come to the fore and confront the flight crew. At that point, the actions of the flight crew and their response to such occurrence can be a determinant factor in whether the accident would happen or otherwise be well managed and avoided. Accordingly, human errors can exist well before the time of the accident. An operational error done by an individual down the track somewhere in the system might be the cause of the event rather than the actions of the flight crew. The concept of chain of events is well-known to scholars and widely acknowledged by the aviation community. Professor James Reason has pioneered this concept and it is widely known as the Swiss Cheese Model ( http://www.coloradofirecamp.com/swiss-cheese/images/swiss-cheese-failures.jpg ) Accordingly, blaming the flight crew for accidents would be unfair to them as they are only the final link of that chain of events, however, despite this remark, their judgement and decision making in these final moments, handling an emergency, can be the deciding element as to whether the accident would happen or not (Mc Fadden & Towell, 1999).

Conclusion :

HFs in aviation will continue to be a major threat affecting safety. The industry’s reaction to this threat was established long time ago with the introduction of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), which eventually has been changed later to Crew Resource Management, in response to more challenges facing the flight crew. CRM is a training programme aimed at managing HFs in aviation, and research has shown that it is a good tool to combat human errors caused by the lack of interpersonal communications, errors of decision making, misjudgements, and aspects of poor leadership. CRM training provides a platform to enhance the behaviours and attitudes of the flight crew, and to minimize the effects of HFs, by making a better use of the flight crew team, that is the human resource available at the cockpit, in order to improve the overall interpersonal elements of the operation of an aircraft (Helmreich, Merritt & Wilhelm, n.d.).

Ref :

Editorial. (2000). Human factors in aviation maintenance: how we got to where we are. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 26, 125– 131. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from an online database

Helmreich, R. L., Merritt, A. C., & Wilhelm, J. A. (n.d.). The Evolution of Crew Resource Management Training in Commercial Aviation. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from an online database

Mc Fadden, K. L., & Towell, E. R. (1999). Aviation human factors: a framework for the new millennium. Journal of Air transport Management, 5, 177– 184. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from an online database

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