How ‘cockpit politics’ can lead to plane crashes

Cockpit of a plane and dashboard
Photo: Relations between pilots can jeopardise the safety of passengers. (Supplied: Wikimedia)

Since the early days of commercial aviation, flight safety has steadily improved.

Considering the number of flights, accidents are now extremely rare, and 70 per cent of them are attributable to human factors. This has led to research in psychology, cognitive science and, more recently, in neuroergonomics.

Researchers have been investigating factors such as drowsiness, stress, attention, workload, communication, and cognitive biases.

One that has been surprisingly overlooked is that of social relations within the cockpit.

Commercial-airline crews are made up of one or two first officers and a designated leader, the captain. While all the pilots have the necessary skills to fly the aircraft, the captain is legally responsible for the flight. They are more experienced, better paid and often significantly older than first officers.

Before take-off, the captain decides who will pilot the aircraft and who will monitor the instruments, checklists and communication.

The power imbalance between the two creates a hierarchical system.

Depending on the situation and the pilots’ personalities, this imbalance can sometimes compromise communication and adversely influence decision making.

Garuda jet crash at Yogyakarta airport
Photo: When it comes to plane safety, the stakes couldn’t be higher. (Reuters: Pentak Lanud Adisucipto )

Power and cognitive bias

Being in a position of power increases the risk of cognitive bias. The halo effect — the tendency to judge people on the basis of their characteristics (such as ethnicity, age, religion etc) or past events unrelated to the situation at hand — can severely affect captains.

This happened in 2011 during the approach of First Air flight 6560, when the relatively inexperienced first officer noticed that the aircraft was veering sightly off-course.

The captain — who, unlike the first officer, had flown many times over the Arctic region — believed the instruments were simply adversely impacted by the proximity of the north magnetic pole. Blinded by his first officer’s relative lack of experience, the captain ignored the latter’s repeated warnings and suggestions to go around.

The mistake proved fatal to the captain, the first officer and 10 passengers.

Captains can also be affected by the false-consensus bias — the tendency to believe that those around us approve of our ideas and actions to a far greater extent than is actually the case.

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