Complacency in the Flight Department.

How do you combat aviation’s silent killer? Where taken-for-granted procedures and short cuts put lives in danger.

Mario Pierobon  |  07th January 2015
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Mario Pierobon
Mario Pierobon

Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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King Air

So what causes complacency and how can it be counteracted?

Within aviation safety management, the causes of ‘complacency’ are not always clear. Complacency can often be equated to ‘overconfidence’ or ‘lack of situational awareness’. Nevertheless, there is a common contributing thread: aviators can become complacent when they lose a healthy sense of respect—better yet, let’s call it fear—toward their routine operations.

Fear often carries negative connotations, but rarely is it equated with the protective values it can foster - namely an internal response that triggers a natural instinct to protect oneself. As long as fear remains at a healthy level within an aviator, it can be harnessed for the purpose of taking due care within routine operations.

Make no mistake: complacency is ever present, and systems need to be in place to guard against the subtle dangers it presents. So how should Flight Department Managers seek to guard against complacency in their own operations?

Preventative Measures

Complacency prevention is an inherently difficult task. Those who are complacent are generally unaware of being so. Nevertheless, over the past three decades many segments of the aviation industry have become more familiar with the concepts and precepts of human factors.

The basic training curricula on human factors in aviation is modelled around the so-called ‘dirty dozen’, a list of recurrent issues that impair human performance in the work place, and was originally compiled by Transport Canada. ‘Complacency’ features prominently, so aviation professionals should already be informed of its existence, and be guarded against its negative effects.

In order to remain alert to the possibility of complacent operating behaviours, it’s important that personnel performing functions - especially simple, routine tasks, or when fatigued – learn to maintain an optimum level of diligence; for example, the appropriate mind set should be expecting to find a fault.

Following written instructions and adhering to procedures can provide suitable stimuli. In addition, optimized time management on long flight segments (when alertness tends to be lower and complacency higher) can be achieved by using ‘empty’ time slots to review technical and operational documentation, including recent revisions in order to stay current. These additional stimuli will help to manage time efficiently and prevent complacency by keeping focus sharp.

Remember: To prevent complacency means to maintain a healthy fear about the things that could potentially go wrong. Complacency comes from a lack of reinforcement. It starts small but grows to a potentially life-threatening measure. Although we do not need to become obsessed with ‘Murphy’s Law’, we should always be vigilant, and recognise warning signs that things could go wrong if strict procedure is not followed.

Recognizing Complacency

Preventative measures – whether through training or incorporating appropriate stimuli when operating in conditions that are prone to complacent behaviour – should be accompanied by training on ‘complacency’ recognition (e.g., learning to spot the warning signs).

One such sign is a sense of excessive ease on the flight-deck: is the flight crew reclining, absorbed with the cloud formations or star constellations outside the cockpit window, or are they alert - fully focussed on their situation? If a single pilot or a crew realizes they have been guilty of complacency and inadvertently lower their vigilance, it is advisable that the crew re-sharpen their focus on their flying duties rather than simply enjoying the beauty of flight.

Pilots should always be examining “what if” situations. Keep in mind the adage, “know what you have to do before you have to do it”. For single pilot operations, it is highly recommended to mentally revise emergency procedures, regularly. If in a multi-crew operation the pilot-in-command should require the crew to review emergency procedures together. This should include covering engine loss scenarios; loss of pressurisation; electrical failures, etc.

Managing Complacency-Aware Organisations

The operation may have an exemplary safety record, but it takes only one moment of gross complacency to blot that clean record forever. Complacency prevention and recognition is not the task of one individual, and it does not only affect pilots. Aircraft maintenance is also subject to complacency. Aircraft maintenance technicians can perform many short-cuts in their duties, too, deviating from standard/approved operating procedures. If these transgressions or omissions go unnoticed, they can develop into serious breaches of safety. So the above considerations on identifying and preventing complacency are equally applicable to technicians.

Business aircraft operators and organizations should guard against slipping into complacency in their practices - from airworthiness management tasks, to maintenance, to flying.

Additional strategies to prevent complacency include:

- Avoid working from memory;

- Never assume that something is OK without a thorough check;

- Sign-off work only after ascertaining that it has been completed.

From an organizational perspective, management can exercise additional complacency countermeasures by emphasising teamwork and encouraging mutual cross-checking during operations. These mechanisms will also provide adequate stimuli when fatigue might be a factor.


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