Hey. I was thinking that some of you might be interested in an article about how we work together on the airplanes, what strategies and tools we use to create a nice working environment. I used to be an instructor for this subject in one of my former airlines, but unfortunately the company closed down and my current airline does not have any open instructor positions available at the moment, even though it is something that really interests me and I would like to give these kinds of trainings again in the future. It is a very complex topic and many books were written about it, so I only be able to give you some basic concepts and ideas how we work together in aviation, but if you are interested in these kinds of topics, you will find a lot more on the internet. Maybe some of the advise I give is useful for your personal life as well – after all, this article deals with human interaction and basically aviation psychology. You don’t have that in aviation only, you have it everywhere!
Introduction – what is CRM and how did it develop?
What is understood by the term ‘Crew Ressource Management’ (commonly abbreviated CRM)? Well the obvious answer is that it is a two day course when joining as a new crew member into new company required by law (there is also ‘recurrent CRM training’, which is a one day course required every year for each crew member). But how does it help us? To understand this we have to go back in history. In the 70’s aviation was not as safe as it is today. Accidents happened (relatively) often – technology was constantly improving and airplanes were becoming safer. One thing that could not be improved by the engineers was the human mind – the people working and airplanes did something wrong and despite good technology there were still accidents (usually called ‘pilot error’ in the media, even though that expression does not really give the full picture). Back then Captains were ‘skygods’ and nobody dared to question a Captain about his decisions. The First Officer was only there to follow the commands of the captain. However, no human is free of error. We all have bad days and make bad decisions from time to time. Maybe the first officer sees something that he knows or considers to be wrong and is just to afraid to speak up, eventually leading to an accident. Even if the First Officer spoke up, Captains regularly ignored valid concerns from First Officers or even shouted at him for questioning his authority.
Some smart pilots and psychologists came to the conclusion that the First Officer and in fact the whole crew are valuable assets that are not being utilized. This was the birth of CRM. Procedures were changed and are still constantly being updated and improved. The general concept proved so successful that it is now even used in medicine, especially in surgery. The first issue that was identified was a too steep gradient in the authority between the Captain and the First Officer, but the concept evolved and now includes a multitude of strategies to improve teamwork. While the Captain remained and still is the ‘last instance’ when it comes to decisions (and has full responsibility), the authority gradient was reduced. First Officers were empowered to speak up if they felt something was not right and Captains were asked to utilize not only the technical resources available to them, but also the human resources. Effective briefings were introduced, the Captains job changed from being ‘the infallible ace pilot’ to becoming an effective team leader. This not only includes the First Officer, but also the cabin crew members and in fact anybody working on or around the airplane. Safety and Crew Ressource Management start at the top level of an organization (i.e. with the CEO) and involve everybody. Even today you may feel that some people feel something is wrong, but they are just afraid to speak up to avoid embarrassment if they are wrong. This is especially true for inexperienced and young crew members.
There are several strategies that are part of CRM. For decision making most airlines use some acronym to make sure all aspects are considered and an optimal solution to an existing problem is found. Usually these processes are only ‘formalized’ when confronted with an abnormal or emergency situation, but I guess everybody guess through these processes when making a decision. A very common model used in aviation is FORDEC, an other one is DODAR. Some airlines consider it good practice (good CRM) to let the first officer do this briefing in an abnormal situation, with the final decision being made by the Captain. This was the Captain will get an honest opinion and maybe hear an option that he has not thought about himself (a new First Officer may be too afraid to speak up and only accepts the Captains decision). As there are many good explanations about FORDEC and DODAR around I will not explain these acronyms in detail. You can find an explanation about DODAR here http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:dodar and about FORDEC here http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:fordec So why do I tell you this? Because you can use it in your daily life too. You may be facing a difficult decision and a structured approach to that decision will make sure you do not miss anything important. It is very useful for finding the best rational solution, but obviously when emotions are involved it may not give you the best solution.
An other tool that is commonly used is NITS. This acronym helps to reduce communication errors in critical and stressful situations, by having a structured approach to communications. Initially it was used for communications between the pilots and the cabin crew in abnormal/situations only, but now it is also used for communications between pilots and Air Traffic Controllers in these situations, but its only implemented in some control areas until now (mostly UK and Central Europe). NITS means Nature (of the Problem/issue), Intentions, Time available and Special instructions. One example of a NITS briefing given by the Captain to the senior cabin crew in an abnormal situation would be ‘Nature of the problem is a technical malfunction of the anti ice system, my intention is to return back to our departure airport, time available is 10 minutes, special instruction expect a normal landing’. The senior cabin crew would then repeat back the message to make sure that everything was understood correctly. However as mentioned in the previous paragraph you can apply this concept as well in your private or professional life. When you are out with friends or your family you could for example say: ‘I am hungry, I would like to have dinner at the restaurant in 20 minutes, can you please reserve a table?’ Nature of the issue is ‘I am hungry’ my intention is to eat at the restaurant, the time available is 20 minutes and special instruction is to reserve a table. This example may be a bit unrealistic, but sticking to this general sequence of NITS gives structure to a statement and makes sure nothing is being forgotten.
One thing that causes airplane accidents are high stress levels. Pilots mismanage their workload or set the wrong priorities and the stress level rises (or external factors cause stress). Up to a certain point, it is beneficial for human performance to raise the stress level (this is understandable, while sitting on bored your coach watching Netflix your mental capacity will not be at peak level). After that point human performance drops sharply and leads to undesirable effects such like fixation (tunnel vision, seeing only one option while not realizing that there are better ones available). This effect was discovered in 1908 by Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson and is called the Yerkes-Dodson law, for details please find the link to the wikipedia article here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law When both pilots get to the point that they are overloaded and stressed the chance of an accident is rising. Therefore there should be strategies in place how to avoid getting to this point and if you get to that situation to recognize it and get yourself out of it again. I heard about one concept from one pilot working for an other airline, which was not used in any of the airlines I was working for until know, but which seems to be a good concept to keep track of the total stress level of the flight crew. It involved three colors, green, amber and red. Green basically means everything is normal, you are not feeling stressed and have enough mental capacity available to cope with additional stressors. Being in the amber area means you are stressed, you can still cope with the situation but if there is additional stress there is a chance to go to the red area which is basically being stressed and overloaded and not being able to effectively cope with the situation anymore. If you are in an airline that uses this concept you can notify your colleague if you enter the amber or red area, to make him aware. This enables him to potentially use his free mental capacity to reduce the workload and get his crew member ‘back into the loop’. For example it could mean temporarily taking over control of the airplane to allow the colleague to finish his open tasks. If both crew members are in the amber or red area it usually means slowing down and getting into a situation where you are able to get back to ‘normal’ (green). For example, during an approach it could mean to ask the Air Traffic Controller to abandon the approach and enter a holding pattern and regain situational awareness. If it happens on the ground it may just mean delaying the flight – I’d rather delay a flight than to depart in an overloaded state of mind. If finishing your work means missing the ‘slot’ (mentioned in an earlier post) that’s how it is. Obviously this takes a bit of character but in a good company, management will be supportive and prefer their crews to take the safest option even if it costs money.
I would like to give this post a personal note as well. I only recently became Captain, so obviously I’m still trying to improve but I will just give you an idea about some of the ideas how I try to forge a group of individuals into an effective team.
It is said that the first impression is important and it is. Usually I make a point of letting my crew members know during the initial briefing (when we first meet) that we are a team and if anybody has any questions or concerns he is more than welcome to approach me. I also welcome constructive criticism. I want to become a better pilot, but without honest feedback I may be doing the same mistake over and over again, so I see criticism as a chance not as an embarrassment or personal attack (as long as it is constructive). It is said that you learn something new in this job every day, which is or at least should be true, but in order to learn something new you have to have an open mind. I always invite the cabin crew to visit us in the cockpit during the cruise flight during their breaks, if they want to. Maybe they have some information that could be useful, but that they don’t consider important enough to give us a call. I try to be respectful of everybody I work with. I used to work as ground staff at an international airport and I know its a tough job, the salary is not great and depending on the ground handling company the amount of training provided to ground staff can be variable. So even if they make mistakes or seem to be lost I will always try to remain patient and explain as much as I can. I am actively encouraging my First Officers to let me know if they are not happy with anything I do – maybe it was my mistake our the First Officer has understood something wrong, either way if they don’t speak up if there is a difference both pilots will have a different mental model of the situation – which is not good and should be clarified.