The Role of human factors in improving Aviation Safety

The role of human factor on improving aviation safety

Human error has been documented as a primary contributor to more than 70 percent of commercial airplane hull-loss accidents. While typically associated with flight operations, human error has also recently become a major concern in maintenance practices and air traffic management. Boeing human factors professionals work with engineers, pilots, and mechanics to apply the latest knowledge about the interface between human performance and commercial airplanes to help operators improve safety and efficiency in their daily operations.

The term “human factors” has grown increasingly popular as the commercial aviation industry has realized that human error, rather than mechanical failure, underlies most aviation accidents and incidents. If interpreted narrowly, human factors are often considered synonymous with crew resource management (CRM) or maintenance resource management (MRM). However, it is much broader in both its knowledge base and scope.

Human factors involves gathering information about human abilities, limitations, and other characteristics and applying it to tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments to produce safe, comfortable, and effective human use. In aviation, human factors is dedicated to better understanding how humans can most safely and efficiently be integrated with the technology. That understanding is then translated into design, training, policies, or procedures to help humans perform better. Despite rapid gains in technology, humans are ultimately responsible for ensuring the success and safety of the aviation industry. They must continue to be knowledgeable, flexible, dedicated, and efficient while exercising good judgment. Meanwhile, the industry continues to make major investments in training, equipment, and systems that have long-term implications.

Because technology continues to evolve faster than the ability to predict how humans will interact with it, the industry can no longer depend as much on experience and intuition to guide decisions related to human performance. Instead, a sound scientific basis is necessary for assessing human performance implications in design, training, and procedures, just as developing a new wing requires sound aerodynamic engineering.

Boeing has addressed this issue by employing human factors specialists, many of whom are also pilots or mechanics, since the 1960s. Initially focused on flight deck design, this group of about 30 experts now considers a much broader range of elements, such as cognitive psychology, human performance, physiology, visual perception, ergonomics, and human-computer interface design. Applied collectively, their knowledge contributes to the design of Boeing airplanes and support products that help humans perform to the best of their capability while compensating for their natural limitations. Because improving human performance can help the industry reduce the commercial aviation accident rate, much of the focus is on designing human-airplane interfaces and developing procedures for both flight crews and maintenance technicians. Boeing also continues to examine human performance throughout the airplane to improve usability, maintainability, reliability, and comfort.

In addition, human factors specialists participate in analyzing operational safety and developing methods and tools to help operators better manage human error. These responsibilities require the specialists to work closely with engineers, safety experts, test and training pilots, mechanics, and cabin crews to properly integrate human factors into the design of all Boeing airplanes.

Their areas of responsibility include addressing human factors in

  • Flight deck design.
  • Design for maintainability and in-service support.
  • Error management.
  • Passenger cabin design.
1. CHARLTON S G & O'BRIEN T G (2002). Handbook of human factors testing and evaluation.
2. GRAEBER C (1999). The role of human factors in improving aviation safety.
3. GRECO JOE (2004). Human factors Engineering.
4. KOONCE J M (1999). A historical overview of human factors in aviation.
5. HAWKINS F (1993). Human factors in flight.

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