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Human Performance Contributions to Safety in Commercial AviationEvery day in aviation, pilots, air traffic controllers, and other front-line personnel perform countless correct judgments and actions in a variety of operational environments. These judgments and actions are often the difference between an accident and a non-event. Ironically, data on these behaviors are rarely collected or analyzed. Data-driven decisions about safety management and design of safety-critical systems are limited by the available data, which influence how decision makers characterize problems and identify solutions. Large volumes of data are collected on the failures and errors that result in infrequent incidents and accidents, but in the absence of data on behaviors that result in routine successful outcomes, safety management and system design decisions are based on a small sample of nonrepresentative safety data. This assessment aimed to find and document “safety successes” made possible by human operators. With many Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) Programs and Projects focusing on increased automation and autonomy and decreased human involvement, failure to fully consider the human contributions to successful system performance in civil aviation represents a significant risk — a risk that has not been recognized to date. Without understanding how humans contribute to safety, any estimate of predicted safety of autonomous capabilities is incomplete and inherently suspect. Furthermore, understanding the ways in which humans contribute to safety can promote strategic interactions among safety technologies, functions, procedures and the people using them. Without this understanding, the full benefits of an integrated, optimized human/technology or autonomous system will not be realized. Historically, safety has been consistently defined in terms of the occurrence of accidents or recognized risks (i.e., in terms of things that go wrong). These adverse outcomes are explained by identifying their causes, and safety is restored by eliminating or mitigating these causes. An alternative to this approach is to focus on what goes right and identify how to replicate that process. Focusing on the rare cases of failures attributed to “human error” provides little information about why human performance routinely prevents adverse events. Hollnagel has proposed that things go right because people continuously adjust their work to match their operating conditions. These adjustments become increasingly important as systems continue to grow in complexity. Thus, the definition of safety should reflect not only “avoiding things that go wrong” but “ensuring that things go right.” The basis for safety management requires developing an understanding of everyday activities. However, few mechanisms to monitor everyday work exist in the aviation domain, which limits opportunities to learn how designs function in reality. This concept of safety thinking and safety management is reflected in the emerging field of resilience engineering. According to Hollnagel, a system is resilient if it can sustain required operations under expected and unexpected conditions by adjusting its functioning prior to, during, or following changes, disturbances, and opportunities. To explore “positive” behaviors that contribute to resilient performance in commercial aviation, the assessment team examined a range of existing sources of data about pilot and air traffic control (ATC) tower controller performance, including subjective interviews with domain experts and objective aircraft flight data records. These data were used to identify strategies that support resilient performance, methods for exploring and refining those strategies in existing data, and proposed methods for capturing and analyzing new data.
Document ID
Document Type
Technical Memorandum (TM)
Null, Cynthia H. (NASA Langley Research Center Hampton, VA, United States)
Adduru, Viraj (Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Columbia, MD, United States)
Amman, Oliver C. (San Jose State Univ. San Jose, CA, United States)
Cardoza, Colleen T. (San Jose State Univ. San Jose, CA, United States)
Stewart, Michael J. (San Jose State Univ. San Jose, CA, United States)
Avrekh, Ilya (Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, Inc. Greenbelt, MD, United States)
Matthews, Bryan L. (Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, Inc. Greenbelt, MD, United States)
Holbrook, Jon B. (NASA Langley Research Center Hampton, VA, United States)
Prinzel, Lawrence J. (NASA Langley Research Center Hampton, VA, United States)
Smith, Brian E. (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA, United States)
Date Acquired
March 12, 2019
Publication Date
February 1, 2019
Subject Category
Man/System Technology and Life Support
Report/Patent Number
Funding Number(s)
WBS: WBS 869021.
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.

Available Downloads

NameType 20190001429.pdf STI

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IDRelationTitle20190033462See AlsoHuman Performance Contributions to Safety in Commercial Aviation