Aviation Human Factors

Aviation human factors are a critical component of safety management in the aviation industry. The concept of aviation human factors refers to the interaction of people with the systems in which they work in order to improve safety and performance.

Human factors are vital to the safe and efficient operation of all areas within the aviation industry. Quoting the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) “Human factors encompasses knowledge from a range of scientific disciplines that support human performance through the design and evaluation of equipment, environments, and work, in order to improve system performance.”

As the understanding of the impact of human behavior on the system and individual performance has increased, the importance of the field of human factors within the aviation industry has grown significantly.

Human factors psychologists study human behavior and performance and apply the latest knowledge about those areas to aviation safety and efficiency by reducing the possibility of human error.

Similarly, human factors professionals focus their development on understanding and applying the fundamentals of Safety Management Systems (SMS).

Also, they follow the regulatory requirements and guidance from institutions such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

This combination allows them to be able to assess human performance and the behaviors that have an impact on aviation safety.

If you want to learn more about the value of human factors in aviation, we invite you to keep reading as we go through all the details.

Human Performance and Human Behavior

Human performance is described by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as “the human contribution to system performance and refers to how people perform their work.”

In other words, human performance is the part of the human factors that focuses on how the people involved in aviation operations fulfill their roles to verify whether they are achieving the ultimate goal of having highly efficient and safe operations.

According to ICAO, the principles of human performance are:

  • Principle 1: People’s performance is shaped by their capabilities and limitations;
  • Principle 2: People interpret situations differently and perform in ways that make sense to them;
  • Principle 3: People adapt to meet the demands of a complex and dynamic work environment;
  • Principle 4: People assess risks and make trade-offs; and
  • Principle 5: People’s performance is influenced by working with other people, technology, and the environment.

Human factors also include human behavior, and human behavior has a direct influence on human performance. So, it is important to identify the behaviors that may lead to human error and compromise safety performance.

Let’s get a closer look at human behavior and other subjects related to human performance and human factors in general.

What is human behavior in aviation human factors?

The subject of human behavior in human factors and human performance focuses on self-awareness. It is about being aware of the human factors that directly affect personal performance and interaction with others, which often defines overall safety performance.

A good example of human behavior and its effect on aviation is the 5 hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA. Not being aware of these attitudes may take pilots and crew members to follow behaviors that could result in poor human performance. These attitudes have been described as:

  • Anti-authority attitude
  • Macho attitude
  • Impulsive attitude
  • Invulnerability attitude
  • Resignation attitude

Fortunately, solutions have been designed to combat these attitudes and avoid human factors that may compromise safety. These solutions usually come in the form of checklists, and most of them are used in pre-flight mode. A good example is the IMSAFE checklist.

Human factors beyond flight operations

Human behavior does not only affect flight operations. Human factors, in general, affect the whole aviation environment including aspects such as the design and maintenance of aircraft systems. Therefore, the human factors principles must be applied across the industry.

Between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a large number of aviation accidents and incidents that were caused by aircraft maintenance errors. To address the situation, Gordon Dupont created what he called “The Dirty Dozen” while working as a Special Programs Coordinator for Transport Canada and being an essential member of an elementary training program for Human Performance in Maintenance.

The Dirty Dozen lists twelve common human factors that can create conditions or situations that may lead to human error that can cause incidents or accidents in aircraft maintenance. These are:

  • Lack of communication
  • Distraction
  • Lack of resources
  • Stress
  • Complacency
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Pressure
  • Lack of awareness
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of assertiveness
  • Norms

Of course, there may be more human factors that may cause incidents or accidents. For example, ICAO Circular 240-AN/144[2] lists over 300 human factors that may result in dangerous occurrences.

Nevertheless, the Dirty Dozen has helped create awareness across aviation professionals who now recognize the relevancy of human factors in aviation. The list is currently used by air traffic controllers, engineers working in flight deck design, cabin crew, and ramp workers, with the Maintenance And Ramp Safety Society (MARSS) having its own poster campaign in support of the original Transport Canada training program.

Safety Management Systems (SMS) and human factors in aviation

In general terms, a Safety Management System (SMS) is a program that promotes safety and reduced risk at work. Now, according to ICAO, people are both the source of some of the risks and an integral part of identifying and managing all risks. Therefore, we can assume that human factors play a critical role in risk management.

ICAO presents a framework for implementing SMS based on 4 components:

  1. Safety policy and objectives
  2. Safety risk management
  3. Safety assurance
  4. Safety promotion

Indeed, since human factors in aviation are essential for operational safety, this framework will not work if the people involved are not trained on the key skills required, such as human information processing and decision-making skills.

Human information processing refers to people having situation awareness to identify what the situation is telling them and interpret that information. Decision-making refers to identifying the best use of the information that has been identified and interpreted.

Fortunately, the trend is that more and more programs are being created to improve safety and address human factors in aviation. Most of these programs are dedicated to safety-critical roles involved in aviation operations like pilots, flight crew, airline managers and operational staff, air traffic controllers, and aircraft maintenance professionals. Yet, online learning has made these programs accessible to anyone interested in getting the intended learning outcomes.

Among these programs, we find those covering crew resource management (CRM) as the most popular ones. A good CRM program will be focused on improving the awareness, information processing, and decision-making skills of in-flight crews. Generally, the skill sets developed include, at least, the following:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Decision-making
  • Teamwork

Of course, we all know that we learn better from making mistakes. Unfortunately, human error can be costly in civil aviation. Yet, they usually provide a good opportunity to critically evaluate what happened and learn from it. The idea is to be well prepared to carry out such an evaluation and discover where the contributing factors came from in order to take the corresponding measures and prevent it from happening again in the future. This takes us to the next point.

How to become a professional in aviation human factors?

Given that the demand for human factors and safety expertise continues to grow within aviation, there are plenty of options for you to launch your career in this field.

Of course, the most traditional path would be getting a Bachelor’s degree in aviation management or more specifically in safety management. From then, taking a Master’s program like the Safety and Human Factors in Aviation MSc from Cranfield University or the Human Factors in Aviation MSc from Coventry University.

Obviously, this path would have advantages and disadvantages as any other. Let’s take a look at them.

Advantages of the Bachelor’s – Master’s path

This path provides the advantages often provided by a traditional college or university education. The most relevant are:

  • Covering subjects in a general and comprehensive way.
  • Accredited certification upon completion.
  • Opportunities for different kinds of experiences along the process. This may include flight training, apprenticeships, and internships with organizations within the industry.

Disadvantages of the Bachelor’s – Master’s path

The main disadvantages are related to time and money. College and university programs usually are expensive, and graduating with a Master’s included usually takes around 6 years. Moreover, entry requirements are usually demanding, which limits access to this type of education.

Also, while the pandemic prompted most educational institutions to offer their programs with distance learning alternatives, this type of course delivery is not always available. This means that students are often required to live near the premises to attend classes. What’s more, if you are already a working professional, this will limit the schedule flexibility you may require to study and work at the same time. Fortunately, there are alternatives, especially for those who already have a degree or experience in related positions.

Alternative career paths

One of them is taking classroom or in-company dedicated courses such as the 3-day Human Factors Application in Aviation course from the UK Civil Aviation Authority. Yet, this still lacks the time and location flexibility you may be looking for.

If that is your case, then taking online courses may be a better alternative for you. Online courses are generally more affordable, and most of them offer you the possibility to take them at your own pace. Even if they are short, you can take advantage of this flexibility and even use the micro-learning format.

Online courses usually have a more focused approach which also provides you with a higher level of specialization. This way, you will have a better opportunity to concentrate on gaining the knowledge you actually require and developing the skills you need. Perhaps you only need to learn the best research methods to perform a proper safety investigation, or you want to learn how human factors can be applied in the design of a specific aviation system or to evaluate pilot performance. And even if is not a full degree, you will still get a certificate upon successful completion.

Recommended online courses on human factors in aviation

Apart from the full programs and courses we mentioned above, these are online courses we recommend if you are interested in aviation human factors.

Human Factors and Safety Management Fundamentals by IATA

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) offers this great introductory course that will “provide you with the principles of Human Factors and Safety Management Fundamentals and the necessary knowledge to foster and promote a positive safety culture within your organization.”

With a requirement of 25-30 hours of study to be completed in 12 months from the purchase date, this e-book format course is a good example of the flexibility and affordability we were mentioning before.

Learn more about this course here.

Human Factor Topics in Safety Investigations

Safety investigations are vital in order to get information and learn from past human errors in order to improve safety management systems and operational efficiency. Of course, human factors are a key element as we have described throughout this guide.

This course covers several different human factor topics which will help a safety investigator examine any safety event to understand what went wrong on the human side, discover why it went wrong, and be able to suggest measures that may help prevent similar occurrences in the future.

Having a total duration of 2 hours and 19 minutes, it cannot get more flexible and affordable than this. Discover the Human Factor Topics in Safety Investigations course here.

Human factors in other safety-critical industries

So far, we have focused on human factors and their impact on aviation operations. However, the truth is that learning and understanding how human factors affect aviation operations can open doors to applying the knowledge and skills gained in other safety-critical industries.

Take the example of healthcare. Clearly, the healthcare industry is one that requires human error to be reduced to the minimum and the same principles apply.

Generally speaking, human performance is a top requirement to meet safety performance and business requirements. In fact, no matter the industry, accident statistics appear to be dominated by the contribution of human factors.

This should not come as a surprise since humans are involved in the design, construction, maintenance, operation, and management of complex socio-technical systems. Therefore, many industries are benefiting from the current approach to safety that applies human factors-based error management programs.

Some of the industries benefiting from the human factors approach include:

  • Energy
  • Healthcare
  • Fire service
  • Rail service
  • Maritime
  • Petrochemical

Traditionally, safety training focused more on technical knowledge and skills required to perform specific tasks, but the new approach focuses more on cognitive psychology and interpersonal skills needed to effectively manage a team-based, high-risk activity.

As we mentioned before, areas like teamwork, situational awareness, decision making, communication and workload, and fatigue management are key to achieving the desired safety and the new approach clearly focuses on those key areas and their practical application.

The benefits the industries are obtaining from this approach are highlighted in the following list:

  • Increasing awareness and identification of human risks
  • Accurate identification of the underlying causes
  • Adopting a non-punitive approach to error management
  • Developing an organizational ‘learning culture’ that has the support and buy-in of its employees
  • Improve human performance
  • Reduce risks
  • Reduce frequency of human error
  • Reduce consequences of human error
  • Increase individual and organizational efficiency

As you can see, successful completion of any of the courses we mentioned above, combined with relevant experience will open the doors to many different industries beyond aviation. Moreover, you can rest assured that you will be highly valued by your organization since you will be a critical asset for success in safety management and operational efficiency.

Closing thoughts on human factors in aviation

ICAO states that the view of human contribution to the aviation system has mainly focused on the errors and violations people make that negatively affect safety throughout history. Fortunately, there has been a recent change and now everything focuses on the positive contribution to safety, resilience, and efficiency made by people in the system.

An understanding of human performance leads everyone to recognize how multiple influences throughout the entire aviation system can affect a service provider’s safety performance during day-to-day operations.

So, the new focus recognizes the value in assessing and understanding, not only when things go wrong, but also when things go right. And most of the time, things do go right.

Now, people’s ability to adapt means that the system is more likely to recover from unexpected disturbances, resulting in increased resilience. Whether there are storms, mechanical emergencies, and economic downturns, recognizing that human error is inevitable and developing a proactive approach to error management provides the required adaptability to stay safe and efficient.

In summary, generating awareness, applying the human performance principles, and identifying the human behaviors that may lead to error are three essential steps to guarantee safety in aviation or any other industry. They will lead to implementing an effective and efficient safety management system.

Nevertheless, the right knowledge and training are required to achieve all of it. Therefore, we can conclude by saying that the programs and courses dedicated to these topics, such as the ones we mentioned in this guide, are also vital for safety in aviation and other safety-critical industries.