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Royal Aeronautical Society


Human Factors

Aircraft safety is not just about aerospace design, engineering and maintenance. The people involved in operating and looking after aircraft play a crucial role in safety.

Human factors specialists look at mistakes made by people that are today the highest cause of accidents in aviation, and how to reduce these errors through better training, aircraft design and the understanding of human behaviour and how people react in emergency situations. The work involves the use of psychology in particular.

If you think about the number of people involved in one short-haul flight from the UK to Spain, the human factor elements are huge: from airport ground staff such as dispatchers, line maintenance engineers and baggage handlers, to the flight deck crew and flight attendants, to the airport's air traffic control tower staff, and then the national air traffic support from UK, French and Spanish authorities until reaching the destination. And that's without considering the design of the aircraft before it went into service, and the many different companies supplying components such as engines, landing gear, avionics systems, seating and so on!

In fact, human factors has been identified as the last area in which large improvements in aviation safety are possible. The topic is a high priority with all kinds of aerospace and aviation companies and particularly airlines, regulators and researchers.

With aircraft being used throughout the world with differences in culture, regulatory and operational methods in place, understanding these differences is another key area of research, particularly in the EU where so many different nations are now under one umbrella,  as well as broader aspects of human error prevention.

Human Factors research and development involves people from several fields including:

• flight crew
• operational and training management
• cabin staff, Air Traffic Control, dispatch, aircraft maintenance and ground operations staff
• regulators such as the CAA
• researchers, particularly in universities
• government departments and governmental agencies
• training suppliers and consultants

All these groups work together to improve standards of safety in aviation by promoting better industry understanding of human factors hazards and techniques for dealing with them. In recent years, incidents such as the British Airways flight which landed before the runway at London Heathrow and the landing of the US Airways flight on the Hudson River, where on both occasions cabin and flight deck crew were able to ensure every single passenger on board escaped safely, are examples of how human factors work has helped saved lives, not-to-mention the accidents that have been prevented from ever happening through the improvements it has engendered.

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