Human factors

Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology

ISSN: 0002-2667

Article publication date: 1 December 2004




(2004), "Human factors", Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology, Vol. 76 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Human factors

Human factors

Keywords: Aircraft, Safety, Human nature

Factors and their interaction with that aspect of human performance that is generally referred to as social psychology. Before I comment social psychology in more detail however, I did like to look at the range of topics that fall within the general heading of Human Factors.

The broad term Human Factors can be broken down into a number of distinct areas. For instance, because it refers to a human condition we have to start with an understanding of human physiology and its effects on our performance. We all have a good appreciation of the fact that our performance can vary dramatically with how well we are feeling, particularly whether or not we are subject to any of the common aliments that would affect our performance in any particular task.

The next general topic is human psychology. This deals with how we process information and how our understanding and training affects our response to particular situations. How we react under stress and other effects such as the disruptions caused by time zone changes. There are then the design and man/machine interface issues that are generally lumped under the heading of ergonomics, a topic that has developed, in recent years, to embrace the whole concept of human centered design. Finally, there is the area which is generally referred to as social psychology. This topic deals with the impact of personality on our interaction with others in team-based activities which in most cases is what public transport operations are all about.

That list of topics embraces all the complexities and frailties of individuals and organisations. It involves what we generally perceive to be our strengths and weaknesses as individuals; it is concerned with our impact on the management of organisations and it affects what we generally refer to as the culture of an organisation and the culture of our industry. As safety professionals if this array of issues does not capture your interest then I really think you ought to be checking if you still have a pulse.

When I have sat down to start work on this presentation, I reflected on an old truth which for all I know may well be based on a Chinese proverb. That is that “there is nothing new under the sun”. We have been talking about Human Factors in our industry now for several generations. As a personal example I discovered some years ago that the AAIB's investigator guidance documentation from the 1940s contained advice on how to set about the Human Factors issues that were covered as part of our investigations at that time. The point that I want to make here is that we already know what most of the safety issues are, we have experienced them in the form of accidents and incidents many times in recent years. Aviation safety databases however do not reflect these issues as a general rule. There are a number of Taxonomy Working Groups developing systems for gathering Human Factors data but it is proving to be a difficult task. The root of the problem is that the investigations that we conduct in this area do not yield tangible factually based evidence. The subject does not present itself in the form of things that we can hold up and demonstrate clearly. Like many of the “soft sciences” the evidence and our analysis of it resides in the area of hypotheses and proposition, areas that are almost certain to generate differences of opinion among the “experts”.

Now throughout the 1970s and 1980s the subject of Human Factors was discussed in a pseudo-academic way. Psychologists and researchers developed “models” to assist our understanding of human factors and our training at that time was very much based on the assumption that an understanding of the theory would prevent human factors related accidents occurring in practice. Accidents continued to occur however and it was not until practical tools were developed in the mid/late 1990s that the subject of Human Factors started to become embedded into everyday operations rather than being treated as an “add-on”. Let us have a look at some of these tools.

An area of intense activity in the Human Factors arena for some considerable time has been Crew Resource Management (CRM). CRM training, which is effectively an appreciation of social psychology, was initially based on the 1980s/1990s academic approach to the subject. It was apparent, almost from the start of CRM training, that the “one size fits all” approach to CRM did not always fully address the individual airlines needs. Over time however, this training has been adapted to meet the needs of individual airlines and now takes account of factors such as national characteristics and culture. This general approach to human performance issues has now been extended to many other areas of air transport operations.

Flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) programmes have allowed us to gain an early identification of some of the issues raised by flight crew human performance in line operations. The use of flight data recorders as a means of monitoring each flight has proved invaluable. It has opened our eyes to what has been happening in line operations and has almost naturally led to the development of Line Operations Safety Audits (LOSA) as an additional tool to help understand how and why.

The Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) education and training aide developed by ICAO, the Flight Safety Foundation and industry was one of the first attempts to develop tools to address specific categories of human performance related accidents. This highly successful approach led to the Approach and Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) Toolkit that addresses the second most prevalent category of accident causes. This “Toolkit” is now available to airlines and I would recommend that all airlines should consider this industry best practice.

Although human factors initiatives were originally associated with flight crew operations, they naturally evolved into the area of aircraft maintenance. Boeing developed their Maintenance Error Decision Aid (MEDA) a few years ago. This is a comprehensive package of tools that can be tailored to any maintenance organisations needs. Developed from this generic approach have been initiatives such as Maintenance Error Management Systems (MEMS) which embeds a system of error identification, investigation, analysis and feedback into maintenance organisations everyday operations.

There are similar approaches and tools being developed in other areas of air transport operations and this is very encouraging. The main point that I wish to make however is that it is for those of you with direct responsibility for operational safety to accept the role of ensuring that these tools are used as a means of embedding best practice into your organisations everyday operations.

This responsibility cannot be delegated to the psychologists and researchers. They are there to help in developing the tools and to assist with aspects of training but they are not in a position to drive through initiatives in this area. That is the responsibility of managers and trainers in the industry. I know that it is a temptation for airlines and organisations to “contract out” Human Factors training. In my view however, this is an area where managements have to demonstrate their commitment by leading these initiatives and ensuring that best practice is firmly embedded into their everyday operations.

This article is based on a Keynote Address presented at International Aviation Safety & Security Conference 2003.

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