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Improving Airline Safety


by Clif Boutelle, SIOP PR

Airline SafetyI-O has greatly impacted a training intervention called Crew Resource Management, which is helping prevent accidents in aviation and other high risk professions

By Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

By all accounts, the horrendous July 6 crash of an Asiana Airlines plane at San Francisco International Airport that killed three people could have been a lot worse.

The accident was the first fatal crash in the United States of a commercial airliner since 2009 when a plane went down near Buffalo killing 50 people. In fact, airline safety is at its highest level ever, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks accident statistics worldwide for the Flight Safety Foundation. The Network also reported that worldwide 2012 was the safest year since 1945.

There are several reasons why air travel is safer and involves fewer fatalities; chief among them is how planes have been strengthened in response to previous crashes as well as the actions of rescue crews. Also, technology advances in air traffic control and navigation have led to fewer accidents like mid-air collisions.

And then there is the human element. The National Transportation Safety Board says in the last 30 years, 60% of fatal airline crashes were attributable to mistakes in the cockpit. Although the investigation is not complete, initial reports indicate there was a breakdown of communication among the pilots of Asiana Airlines Flight 214.

In the 1970s, reports regarding errors by flight crews resulted in the creation of a training regimen called Crew Resource Management (CRM), which seeks to optimize crew performance by reducing the effects of human error through various strategies designed to improve teamwork.

One SIOP member who since the 1980s has been involved with CRM training research and implementation is Eduardo Salas from the University of Central Florida, Pegasus Professor of Psychology with a joint appointment at UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training.

“CRM is an intervention aimed at improving human performance and, in particular, teamwork on the flight deck,” said Salas, adding that commercial and military aviation have been using CRM training for nearly 3 decades.

The science involved includes identifying the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for effective teamwork and performance as well as the development of measurement systems that track how well teams are doing. I-O is also helping establish team-level feedback approaches that provide teams with a diagnosis of their progress and areas of improvement, Salas and his fellow researchers wrote in a 2011 article for the APS Observer.
“I-O has led to and produced advances in the theory of teamwork competencies, design, deliverance and validation of the training flight crews undergo,” Salas said.

David Baker, senior vice president of the health division at IMPAQ International and a nationally recognized expert in team performance, training and measurement, noted that I-O focuses on the human factors involved in training and teams. Baker understands the important role teams play in high risk professions like aviation and healthcare.

“An effective team is a group of people working together to achieve a high level of performance and CRM training is a critical element,” he explained. “Pilot training used to focus on technical skills and learning how to fly the planes, but there was not much CRM instruction. That has changed. It is one thing to be able to fly the plane but another to react to critical situations in a manner that will produce a safe outcome.”

Baker, whose clients have included the Federal Aviation Administration and various U.S. airlines, and Jeff Beaubien, principal scientist at Aptima, Inc., led one of the few surveys of airline pilots to determine their perceptions of CRM training, using I-O principles in measurement and training of airline pilots and evaluation of teamwork skills.

“The training received a very positive response from the pilots in the study,” he said. “Nevertheless, while CRM has proven valuable, it is not a stand alone solution to safety.”

Salas agrees.

“The goal of CRM training is to prevent or minimize human error, yet it is commonly acknowledged that most aviation accidents are caused by human error,” he explained.
“Because of the small number of accidents, there is not enough data to definitively equate CRM with airline safety. While the data we have is compelling, it is not yet entirely proven.”

Nevertheless, there is anecdotal evidence that CRM works, Salas pointed out. When US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to land in the Hudson River in 2009, everyone on board survived. The NTSB credited the outcome to the fast actions of the pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, and the crew members, adding that the ability to perform these duties was due in significant part to their CRM training.

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, IA following engine failure, killing 111 of the 296 people on board. It could have been worse. The accident is considered a prime example of successful Crew Resource Management due to the manner in which the flight crew handled the emergency and that 185 people survived considering the plane landed without conventional control.

Salas is proud of the contributions I-O has made to the development of Crew Resource Management and notes that it has spread to other high-risk occupations, including hospitals and the nuclear power and offshore drilling industries.

He noted that CRM in healthcare has been shown to save lives. Some studies at VA Hospitals employing team training have shown an 18% decline in deaths. This is a direct link to team training, he said.

“We’ve done studies in the trauma environment and have found positive reactions to events, improved performance of doctors and medical staff, and increased knowledge,” Baker added. “For example, we found a significant improvement in clinical efficiency of trauma teams regarding intubating patients, getting CT scans, and moving patients to surgery due in large part to CRM training.”

Salas and other researchers have conducted numerous studies through the years evaluating CRM. He noted that not all team training interventions are the same, nor is there a CRM program that is “one size fits all.”

A primary concern, he says, is that despite what is known about the science of training, it is not uniformly making its way into the implementation of CRM interventions. Although governing agencies such as the FAA and the Civil Aviation Authority provide resources to help organizations develop CRM training programs, they only provide recommendations. Greater standardization for CRM training is needed, Salas argues.

“We need a mandate to compel researchers to conduct sound, systematic, reliable, and robust evaluations,” he said. “In other words, a directive is needed for the organizations, institutions, or agencies that are designing, delivering, and implementing CRM training. This direction should ensure that the training is evaluated at multiple levels, on a continuous basis, and in a standardized way.”

“Without this mandate,” Salas and colleagues wrote in a 2006 Human Factors paper, “CRM training will continue to be implemented as merely a ‘check in the box’ without necessarily utilizing what is known about the proper design, development, implementation, and evaluation of training programs.”