Human Factors in Aviation Operations

Guides · 6 min read · Dec 02, 2021
human and aircraft

Aviation is widely accepted as the most reliable means of transportation all over the globe. The safety margin achieved by the aviation industry is par excellence, with only 0.07 deaths per one billion passenger miles. The interaction between humans and machinery plays a prominent role that made human factors in aviation a key topic from the early days of flying.

State-of-the-art airplanes, enhanced safety protocols, and novel air traffic management strategies have made aviation reliable over time. Still, human errors in aviation have been a hindrance, and many efforts have been taken to keep the human factors issues at a lower count. 

The Role of Human Factors in Aviation

Many industries that required human intervention evolved over the years and reached an autonomous state where the human is evicted from the scenario. As a leading industry that employs novel technologies, aviation has not evicted the human but ensured his position within the cockpit. The human-machine interface is the most imperative relationship in the field of aviation.

Machines have evolved significantly, achieving remarkable feats, but humans have not evolved to a greater extent within this short span of time. The study of human factors in aviation safety keeps an eye on the interaction of humans between other humans, machines, and the surrounding environment.

When simply put, as stated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 

“Human factors is the study of how people interact with their environments. “

The International Air Transport Association officially introduced human factors into civil aviation after the first conference held in Istanbul in 1975. Since then, human performance has been given a highlighted position to reduce human error in the field of aviation safety. 

What We Know So Far: Aviation Human Factors Knowledge

Understanding human factors and being up-to-date with the latest human factors knowledge is as important as avoiding an accident just for the fact: human errors contribute to more than 70% of the hull-loss accidents in commercial aviation. 

In the early days of flying, professionals tried to improve human performance by building technical comprehension of the flight crew, maintenance personnel, and air traffic controllers. But over time, this propensity did not contribute to aviation safety significantly. Then the attention was given to crew teamwork in addition to already entrenched technical proficiency. Training programs like Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Maintenance Resource Management (MRM) came into the picture along with models like SHELL and Swiss cheese. 

Human Factors in Aviation Maintenance

Apart from the pilots, aviation maintenance personnel are the next in line who contributes to aviation. Hence, aviation safety heavily relies on aviation maintenance. The Aloha incident that took place in 1988 was an eye-opener for most airlines and regulatory bodies. FAA immediately announced an Aircraft Ageing Program to identify fatigue damages to the aircraft. 

Maintenance Resource Management (MRM)

MRM was a training program that developed in parallel to CRM with the intention of lowering maintenance errors in aviation. MRM consists of Dirty Dozen, communication procedures, shift handover procedures, and documentation procedures to minimize human maintenance factors leading to accidents and incidents. Minimizing the maintenance-related human factors issues can avoid accidents and save millions of dollars for the airlines.

An aircraft returning to the base after taking-off could occur due to a simple maintenance procedures error such as leaving ground locking pins in the landing gears, which costs a hundred dollars for the airline. Mistakes made by all the other trades will inherit immediate results, but the human errors caused by maintenance personnel will take days, months, if not years to showcase, which is more latent than any other trade. This is an alarming fact as an under-performed maintenance task is severe than a time bomb. 

Training Programs Improving Aviation Safety

Aviation was experiencing a positive demand over the past years before being badly hit by the pandemic. Increasing demand from the growing middle class, liberalization of air travel, flexible booking options, and increased flight safety accounted for the positive demand.

In the year 2019, 4.397 billion passengers have taken their flights, and it is predicted to reach the pre-COVID demand by the year 2024. Pent-up demand for aviation by the younger Americans and Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) passengers are being the key for the expected demand. With this higher demand, the industry will become more complex than ever before with new aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and infrastructures.

Hence robust training programs are a must to cater to the increasing demands in the industry to ensure proper levels of aviation safety. As complexity can often lead to confusion and ambiguity, more time and effort should be dedicated to improving novel and effective training methods. Already enacted strategies and laws are great leads to continue the development of aviation safety for future needs as well.

Addressing Operational Human Factors Issues

To address operational human factors issues, a Hierarchy of Risk Control strategies can be employed. This strategy is widely adopted in many industries, including aviation. The strategy’s prime intention is to control risks in the workplace: the aircraft, apron, hangar, workshops, and control rooms. The hierarchy assesses risks from the highest level and step-down to the lowest level of risk. 

Level 1

  • Eliminate the hazard.

Level 2

  • Substitute the hazard with a safe alternative.
  • Isolate the hazard from people. 
  • Reduce the risk through engineering control.

Level 3

  • Administrative measures to minimize the hazard.
  • Protective Personal Equipment (PPE). 
A flight attendant conducting a pre-flight safety briefing for passengers onboard an aircraft.
Image source: Miguel Discart

Crew Resource Management (CRM)

Crew resource management is specialized training focused on improving decision-making in-flight crews. The training profoundly empowers the interpersonal skills that benefit heavily in the modern-day commercial airplane environment. Communication, leadership, decision-making, and teamwork are the main pillars of CRM. 

Air Ontario Flight 1363 is a perfect example of poor CRM practices. The flight crashed into the woods shortly after takeoff as the aircraft could not maintain a positive rate of the climb because aircraft wings had ice accumulations. Flight attendant Sonia Hartwick had seen ice deposits over the wings shortly before the takeoff, and she never reached the flight crew to inform them about the impending disaster as she was not aware of the level of danger they were in. Many reasons backed her decision which should have been addressed by proper CRM training.

  1. Inadequate technical know-how on the aircraft systems: Improving knowledge on aircraft automated systems assists decision making in critical situations. Basic knowledge of cabin pressurization, fire and smoke detection, ice and rain protection, and engine numbering come in handy in a hazardous situation. 
  2. Communication: Empower intra-crew communication to mitigate barriers between the aircraft cabin and the flight deck. In the Air Ontario air crash, no information was passed from the cabin to the flight deck. This led to the loss of situational awareness of the pilots. 
  3. Overemphasis on sterile cockpit: Educating more on the concept of the sterile cockpit will give flight attendants a clear picture of the pilot’s workload during each flight phase. Some flight attendants refrain from contacting the flight deck even for a critical issue with the hesitation of breaking into a sterile cockpit. 
  4. Teamwork: Not conveying information to her coworkers showcases lack of teamwork among the flight attendants. 

If she had been exposed to the above criteria during a training session, she would probably exercise good judgment saving all on board. 

Every aviation professional undergoes CRM training, and it is the responsibility of the operator to update their knowledge with frequent refresher programs. CRM training contributes to mitigating human error while improving the morale and efficiency of the crew, which is a win-win situation for all the parties involved. 

Safety Culture: Ultimate Answer for Mitigating Human Error

In a safety culture, all the employees work hand-in-hand to minimize errors and follow correct safety protocols even if no one is watching them. Safety culture is the basement of each Safety Management System (SMS) employed by the organizations. Safety culture is:

  • Informed culture: shares information among all employees,
  • Reporting culture: reports safety-related issues, 
  • Learning culture: learning from past mistakes and doing changes, 
  • Just culture: non-punitive for unintentional errors, 
  • Flexible culture: employs adaptations.

There are five levels in safety culture: Level 1 or the pathological level is the lowest, while Level 5 or the Generative level is the highest achievable level. In Level 1, employees’ attitudes are like ‘ who cares as long as we are not caught’. But in Level 5, employees think ‘safety is how we do business around here.’ 

Conclusion

Human factors in aviation are a never-ending field of study, and eviction of humans from aviation will remain impractical for the decades to come. Unarguably, technology continues to evolve, and commercial airplanes will surpass human capabilities, but humans will always be ultimately responsible for flight safety.

Flight operations being more complex and dynamic will keep human factors specialists busy finding new countermeasures to cater to the increasing demand while ensuring operational safety in the aviation industry. A well-established safety culture with updated human factors knowledge will improve aviation safety. Hence, accidents like the Tenerife air crash will only be found in our history books. 

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Aeroclass Team
A team of professionals with a deep passion for the aviation industry bringing you the newest and the most striking industry-related news and content.

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