Although aviation may bring to mind images of airplanes, helicopters and airports, humans play an equally important role in the industry. The relationship between humans and those machines, human factors, is a critical facet to ensuring successful aviation operations.
What is Human Factors?
Human factors is the study of the relationship between humans and machines. The ultimate objective for human factors experts is to boost the performance, efficiency, comfort and safety of the interaction between human and machine. This field requires an understanding of human behavior, human abilities and general human characteristics to then inform the way tools, machines, systems and products are designed for human use. When environments, tasks and jobs are designed optimally, they account for the greatest comfort, safety and effectiveness for human operators.
Planning for human conditions, like fatigue or stress, can help reduce accidents. Most aviation maintenance errors (80%) can be attributed in part to human factors, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Failure to plan appropriately can result in accidents, injuries or wasted time.
Accurate planning for human factors is an interdisciplinary effort. A few related disciplines include:
- Ergonomics: this field emphasizes the design of the product itself, which can impact the human operator if, for example, a keyboard is designed to reduce carpal tunnel.
- Human factors engineering: human factors engineering specializes in product design, but instead of isolating the design to a workshop, considers human involvement in the design.
- Engineering psychology: this discipline emphasizes the psychology of the human user. This is important in the design of a display, where a user must be able to receive and understand information accurately.
- Industrial/organizational psychology: I/O psychology focuses on how the workplace itself accounts for human factors, such as desk placement and seating arrangements.
These disciplines collaborate to develop an interdisciplinary approach to the collective goal of improving interactions between humans and machines.
Where Do Human Factors Professionals Work?
Human factors professionals work in a variety of settings. Working in the private for technology producers like IBM or Apple, aircraft manufacturers like Airbus or Boeing, or for airlines is typical. Others may conduct research in the private or public sector, such as for the Department of Defense, to ensure products and processes are well-developed. Finally, there are human factors faculty at colleges and universities.
Human Factors in Aviation
In aviation, human factors come into play in all facets of the industry, whether a pilot is operating a plane, a gate attendant is overseeing the boarding process, or a maintenance professional is assessing the plane. Within aviation, there are multiple subsets of human factors to consider, including:
Safety engineers strive to ensure that aviation systems critical to saving lives continue to operate as needed even if the component fails. Often, this means analyzing a system design in its early stages, assessing potential faults and issues, and recommending safety requirements in the designs to improve systems. Flight safety and other areas also include designing the aviation maintenance facilities, storage containers of any toxic materials, heavy lifting equipment and safe floor designs.
Aircraft systems and equipment maintenance are integral to aviation safety. This encompasses how parts are installed (and that all parts that should be installed are), conducting required checks and documenting all maintenance accurately. Aviation maintenance technicians work in conditions unique to aviation, including very late or very early hours, in small spaces or at extreme heights, and across a range of temperature conditions. Aviation maintenance work requires an ability to handle physical strain and a rigorous attention to detail.
In the design itself, humans must be taken into account to ensure correct access. For example, Boeing used human modeling analysis in designing some of its 737s to conclude that the electrical bay needed to be redesigned for a mechanic to access all the wire bundles required for an updated flight deck concept. Access, visibility and physical function must all be taken into account in aviation design. And, because of the unique and inconstant conditions unique to aviation, this design often has robust needs. For example, a valve must be operable in even extreme cold and a platform must not become dangerously slick in the rain.
Despite careful design and maintenance, operations and maintenance are still likely to fail. The aviation industry has struggled to develop a systemic, consist way to evaluate these errors for better insight; however, there are several protocols that have been established to try to better understand. For example, Boeing uses its Procedural Event Analysis Tool (PEAT) to manage flight crew procedure breaches. PEAT operates on the base assumption that the error was unintentional, and uses an investigator to interview the crew about the infraction and any contributing factors. The interview is recorded in a database.
Errors can also be better managed through rigorous training programs, warning systems and transparent procedures.
Crew Resource Management
Crew resource management (CRM) encompasses team management into the communication and interaction between all people involved in aviation, including pilots, flight attendants, maintenance personnel, operations personnel and air traffic controllers. This requires each crewmember to receive appropriate training, including communication, decision making and situational awareness and assessment.
Human factors expertise can also improve passenger comfort through passenger cabin design. For example, ensuring the cabin accommodates both passengers and crew to function and act generally as they would like to in boarding, exiting and moving around the cabin in flight.
Human Factors in Aviation: Real-World Impact
Human error – more than mechanical failure – is most often the cause of aviation accidents and incidents. In aviation, the unintended consequences associated with human performance issues can be grave. Eliminating human error is impossible; however, managing it is possible through training, risk assessment, safety inspections and other processes that help identify errors early on.
For example, one of the projects Florida Tech is conducting research on through the FAA’s Center of Excellence for General Aviation, known as the Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability (PEGASAS) specifically examines human factors involved in runway safety. The study focuses on how pilots ignore or miss runway signage and markings. The project will determine the human factors issues concerning lighting, signage and airport markings, which can help decrease human error and improve safety.
This is just one example of human factors aviation research can have a real impact on aviation safety. When skilled human factors experts can support the myriad disciplines involved in aviation, better planning and prevention can avoid incidents and even save lives. Understanding the unique interplay between machines and the people who operate them is especially crucial in aviation. Florida Tech’s BA in Aviation Management online program includes coursework on human factors in aviation to equip aviation professionals to understand this essential field.