Industry Turns To Self-Help For Improving Pilot Monitoring

By Sean Broderick
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
September 02, 2013
Credit: Airbus/H. Gousse

An informal industry working group is producing a data-rich study to convince airlines that deficient pilot-monitoring skills are a widespread safety threat, and it will provide straightforward recommendations for carriers to help remedy the problem.

The Active Pilot Monitoring workshop (APM) grew out of a November 2012 human factors meeting. Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member and former airline pilot, challenged fellow attendees to do what regulators have not: devise a focused method to help pilots become better monitors.

Representatives from 20 organizations, notably airlines, labor groups and regulators, have outlined an ambitious agenda. The objective: go beyond studies that analyze monitoring deficiencies and offer—peer to peer, not regulator to regulated—simple, effective tactics to improve pilot-monitoring skills.

“We structured this as a grassroots effort emanating from the airlines,” says Steve Dempsey, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 captain and the APM's co-lead. “We are reaching out to government and to labor for resources to solve an industry problem.”

The group, embracing a perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good approach, gave itself until the end of 2013 to break new ground in a maturing area. “We've talked about monitoring in the past, but we've never taken as comprehensive a look as this group has,” says Helena Reidemar, the APM's co-lead as well as a Delta 757/767 pilot and the Air Line Pilots Association's (ALPA) human factors director.

Effective monitoring means maintaining a big-picture view of what is happening on the flight deck and with an airplane's state, including heading, airspeed and altitude. It sounds easy, but pilots know better. “It turns out that effective monitoring is a tricky, error-prone task for pilots to consistently achieve,” says Dempsey, who also chairs Delta's Human Factors Working Group. “Solutions will require airlines to review their operating cultures, policies, procedures and practices.”

Qualitative evidence of pilot-monitoring deficiencies goes back at least two decades. A 1994 NTSB study on 37 “flight crew-involved” U.S. airline accident sequences found monitoring errors in 31 of them, or 84%. That prompted NTSB to issue its first monitoring-related recommendation to FAA. “The bad news is, all those accidents occurred,” Sumwalt said during a monitoring panel at the recent ALPA Safety Forum. “The good news is, if we're looking to improve safety, when you've got a bar on a bar chart saying 84 percent of something [needs improvement], that gives you a great opportunity to target in that area.”

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