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Airline Cabin Crew Resource Management (CRM)

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Published: Thu, 09 Aug 2018

Cabin crew forms an important part of flight operation. They take the responsibility of the people aboard an aircraft. For a long time, cabin crews have been criticized for taking causal approach to aircraft safety leading to death of thousands of people. It is due to increased incidences of human error in aircraft accidents that led to development of Crew Resource Management (CRM) concept. Thanks to CRM, today’s flights and cabin crews are quite different from those of early days of commercial aviation. The captain in the aircraft was once taken to be the “God” during flight had his decisions and commands were not questioned. There was very little input from pilots because it was assumed that captain knows all and it would appear disrespectful to question the decision of the superior. This kind of relationship did not go well with civilian cockpits and the number of accidents which could be attributed to cabin crew errors increased. Airline accidents that were related to pilot errors claimed hundreds of lives and the knowledge of cabin crew on handling flights came to be questioned. For example in 1978, United 171 ran out of fuel flying over Portland and unfortunately, this was not noticed even by the cabin crew until it was too late. In 1982, Air Florida 90 failed to be properly de-iced and it crashed shortly after it had taken off from Washington. It was also revealed that all the standard operating procedures had been violated by the cabin crew. It’s a series of such accidents that could be attributed to human errors that led to implementation of Crew Resource Management in a bid to empower them with skills on how to handle flights. In 1980, United Airlines formally instituted a training program that came to be known as Crew Resource Management (CRM) which was aimed at equipping the whole cabin crew, including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, and others with personal and interpersonal skill to handle flights with safety. CRM mainly emphasizes on the principles and concept of improving crew performance and flight safety. Although it has been criticized by some people in the sense that there has been accidents attributed to human errors despite its existence for more than three decades, it has generally been acknowledged that CRM cannot solve all the problems related to human errors but it goes an extra mile to equip pilots and cabin crew members with important safety measures they need to observe during a flight. It is a not a panacea of aircraft accidents but it can make a huge impact on mitigation human related aircraft accidents.

What is CRM?

Crew Resource Management (CRM) can be defined as a set of procedures and training system which is meant to mitigate the impact of human errors on flight. The main aim of CRM is to improve air safety through reduction of human errors (Aviation Knowledge, 2010). It is mainly focused on human factors like interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making process in the cockpit, which have been found to be major factors contributing to aircraft accidents. CRM concept was born out a NASA worship that was held in 1979 but since then, it has evolved in different ways being expanded to include more crews.

CRM mainly encompass a wide range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, which are major human factors during flight (Aviation Knowledge, 2010). It encompass a wide range of factors like communication, situational awareness, problem solving, decision making, teamwork, and many others which are pertinent to cabin crew during flight. These factor are not new in aviation but they have been recognized for a long time since aviation began and have been expressed in general terms like ‘airmanship’, ‘captaincy’, ‘crew co-operation’, and many others but have never been given the needed attention until recently when human errors were recognized as major factor in aviation safety. Putting into consideration all these aspects, CRM can therefore be defined as a management system which make use the resources available, mainly equipments, procedures and people, in order to enhance safety and efficiency during flight (The Royal Aeronautical Society, 2010).

CRM is not concerned much with the technical knowledge and skills in flight operation but rather it aims and reducing human errors and enhancing human response in case of safety breach during flight (The Royal Aeronautical Society, 2010). CRM is therefore concerned with cognitive and interpersonal skills which are necessary to manage flight. It targets to harness cognitive and interpersonal skills of the crew to enhance safety and efficiency. Cognitive skills encompass the mental processes which are used to gain situational awareness, which are important in solving problems and taking immediate decisions. On the other hand, interpersonal skills mainly encompass communication and other behavior skills that enhance teamwork. In aviation, these skills mainly intercept and overlap now and then, together with the technical skills.

CRM and aviation accidents

The main reason behind introduction of CRM was in response to the rising number of accidents which were attributed to human error (The Royal Aeronautical Society, 2010). During 1950s, there was introduction of turbojets that were considered more reliant and consequently, there was reduction in the number of aircraft accidents that were attributed to technical failure. The problem of air flames and engine failure slowly diminished with coming of more reliable jets and the number of accidents reduced. Between 1959 and 1989, more than 85% of all accidents were attributed to flight crew errors while only less than 10% could be attributed to technical condition (Aviation Knowledge, 2010; Wiener, 1993). Less than 5% could be attributed to maintenance, weather, airport condition, and other causes (Wiener, 1993). From 1950s, number of human error aviation accidents worldwide rose sharply and this became a major concern for most countries. With recognition of human performance problem, there was growing interest to understand the meaning of “pilot error”, which became common in most aircraft accident reports.

Most of the reports on aircraft accidents, especially those which were compiled by NTSB gave chilling documentation citing instances of pilot error which included (Wiener, 1993):

One report cited a case where a crew was distracted by failing landing gear indicator light did not notice that the automatic pilot had been disengaged and consequently allowed the aircraft to descend into a swamp.

In another report, a co-pilot who was concerned that the take-off thrust had not been properly set when departing in a snow storm, failed to get captain’s attention and consequently the aircraft stalled and crashed into Potomac River.

Another report cited an incidence where the crew failed to review the landing charts and navigation position properly and further ignored warning from Ground Proximity Warning System and the aircraft crashed into a mountain below as the aircraft exceeded the minimum descent altitude.

A crew who had been distracted by non-operational communication failed to complete all checklists and crashed on take-off because all the flaps had not been extended.

Another reported cited constrained communication between captain, co-pilot, and the Traffic Control on the fueling of the aircraft and consequently crashed due to exhaustion of fuel.

A crew crashed on take-off due to icing on the wings even after asking about de-icing facilities. Also, a flight attendant failed to communicate about the concerns that had been on by the pilot about de-icing.

The theme that emerges in all these cases is that of human error, which is attributed to different factors ranging from interpersonal communication to ignorance. Even before these reports were documented, there had been other studies which had revealed the negative side of human errors in aviation and there was need to take immediate action to address the situation.

Various studies in 1970s revealed that human errors in aircraft accidents could be classified in three broad categories based on behavior approach (Diehl, 1991). These included procedural, perceptual motor, and decisional task. Procedural task which could lead to pilot error include mismanagement of vehicle subsystem and configuration problems and other related errors like retracting the landing gear rather than flaps or just overlooking the provided checklist items. Perceptual motor tasks comprise of tasks like manipulation of flight controls and throttles which would lead to errors like shooting a glide-slope indication and many others. Majority of pilot errors were however attributed to decision task which can range from flight planning to hazard evaluation (Aviation Knowledge, 2010). These would result to errors like failure to properly delegate tasks during emergencies. Analysis of fatal accidents which could be attributed to pilot errors revealed that perceptual motor and decisional procedures were major contributors of pilot errors.

CRM training was adopted in the 1980s as a measure to address the above mentioned areas that results to pilot errors. CRM aims at harnessing personal skills in all these areas to reduce crew errors (Diehl, 1991). In order to reduce aviation accidents, CRM programs have been aimed at addressing two main areas including aeronautical decision making (ADM) and situational awareness.

Aeronautical decision making include judgment training programs which are cognitive based. It is aimed at enhancing attitudes and behavior of the crew members. These skills have been applied to train other crew members apart from pilots. Training on ADM is based on the fact that decision making comes from a feedback mechanism where the pilot has to manage his or her attention and make prompt decision to save flight in case of danger. On the other hand, situational awareness is aimed at enhancing attention and task management for the pilots. This is aimed at helping the crew to manage the situation at hand using the most appropriate technique.

In both civil and military aviation, records shows that CRM has reduced the number of fatal accidents and aircraft mishaps which can be attributed to human errors. In U.S Navy, the rate of aircrew mishap was reduced from 7.89 in 1986 to just 1.43 in 1990 after CRM was adopted, representing an 81% improvement. In USAF, a five year period comparison before and after CRM was adopted in 1985 shows that the number of aircrafts destroyed due to crew error reduced from 21 to 10, a 52% improvement (Diehl, 1991). There is evidence in civil aviation that exemplifies how CRM has helped crew to manage situations at hand. For example Captain Al Haynes of United Airlines Flight 232 credited CRM for having their life while flying in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. In this situation the traditional concept of ‘captaincy’ was ignored and all pilots on board gave their contribution which effectively saved the whole aircraft and those on board (Dorsett, 1993).

History CRM and Evolution of CRM Training

CRM can be traced to1980s when United Airlines first started CRM classes. The root development of CRM can be traced back to a workshop that was held in 1979 by National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The 1979 conference was an important turning point in the history of Crew Resource Management as it provided the base for exploration of the increased number of accidents that were related to human error (Aviation Knowledge, 2010). The conference was considered an outgrowth of NASA research which was aimed at exploring the cause of increased air transport accidents. The NASA research, which was presented in the conference, made reference to human error in the recent accidents citing a number of factors including failure for communication, delayed or wrong decision making, leadership, and others. It was during this meeting that the label Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) came to be used to refer to the process of training crews in efforts to reduce human pilot error during flight through use of human resources on the flight deck (Helmreich, Merrit and Wilhelm, 1999). This conference had brought together major carriers in United States and a number of carriers present became committed to put in place training programs that would ensure pilots were well trained on how to harness human resources during flight.

From that conference, many airlines put in place programs that were aimed at enhancing crew resources on the flight deck. United Airlines became one of the first airlines that put in place a CRM program that trained all its pilots on how to use human resources on the flight deck (Helmreich et al., 1999). Almost every airline today has a CRM program running. In addition, CRM has since then evolved to target all crews and the word ‘cockpit’ was replaced with the word ‘crew’ to reflect the target.

CRM has evolved in different states. The initial CRM program, which can be regarded as the first generation CRM was initiated by United Airlines between 1980 and 1981. The first generation of CRM programs was developed by consultants who had been indulged in formulation of management programs to improve management effectiveness. The first United Airline CRM module was formulated like Managerial Grid which had been used in psychology (Helmreich et al., 1999). Under the program, training was conduction in a seminar setting and it mainly involved diagnoses of individual managerial style and skills. Most of the CRM programs which were developed during this era were heavily reliant on management training approaches. They were mainly aimed at changing management styles and correction of individual deficiencies. For example, they aimed at correcting individual lack of assertiveness for the juniors to eliminate the concept of “captain is always right” and to remove the authoritarian approach of the captains. These courses were mainly physiological and based on general concept of leadership. Although the advocated for strategies to improve personal behavior, they did not give a clear definition of the appropriate personal behavior in the flight deck. These CRM programs were also made recurrent rather the episodic and they used games and exercises, some which were not related to aviation concepts. However, these programs met resistance especially from pilots who described them as ‘charm schools’ that were merely aimed at changing their personalities.

The second generation CRM programs were developed to improve on the programs discussed above. In 1986, NASA held a workshop which was aimed at discussing the emerging challenges facing the implementation of CRM programs (Helmreich et al., 1999). From the conference, it emerged that CRM would soon cease to be a stand-alone training when it would be incorporate in flight training and also in flight operations. Around this period, there was new generation of CRM programs that were coming into the market. These programs changed the name cockpit and replaced it with crew in order to reflect the diversity of the targets since it become evident that apart from pilots, other crew members, including mechanics, had a major role to play in flight safety. The new programs became a blue print of Delta Airlines program that was focused more on the given aviation concepts, which were related to flight operations (Helmreich et al., 1999). The new programs were also modular and team oriented compared to the earlier programs. They were also delivered through seminars but dwelt on important aspect of flight like team building, briefing strategies, stress management, and others which had been eliminated from initial trainings. The depth of the module was implanted on the decision making strategies and the strategies that crews could use to break chain of errors that were likely to land the flight into catastrophe. However, there was no much distinction between these programs and the first generation program since training was mainly carried out through exercise and demonstrations which sometimes were not related to aviation. These programs were accepted more than the first generation program. They were however criticized for being ‘psycho-babble’. Most of these second generation program continue to be used in United States and other parts of the world as well.

Third generation CRM were mainly involved with broadening the scope. These programs emerged in 1990s and CRM training was beginning to take a trend to multiple paths. The training started becoming more related to situation in aviation system which reflected the way crew functioned with inclusion of multiple factors like organizational culture and others which determined safety. Third generation programs also began to show signs of integration of CRM with technical training and there was focus on specific skills and behaviors which could be employed by pilots to be more effective (Helmreich et al., 1999). Third generation programs also addressed issues of recognition and assessment of human factors and there were advanced training for all check airmen and others who were responsible for training and evaluation of human factors. This means that third generation programs went beyond the normal target of cabin crew alone. This expansion of CRM made it possible to include other flight crew like flight attendants, dispatchers, and the maintenance personnel. Airlines were also extending the reach of their program and most of them started conducting joint cockpit-cabin training. There were also carriers who came up with specialized CRM training for all the new captains since they were going to take up leadership position on most flights. It is therefore clear that third generation CRM programs recognized the need to extend the concept flight crew to include others who were not considered as a part of the crew before. Reduction of human errors could not be ensured without increasing the reach to include other crews.

In 1990, Federal Aviation Administration developed a new training and qualification program which was meant to align with newly introduced Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) (Helmreich et al., 1999). AQP was developed as a voluntary program, which allows airlines to come up with innovative training fitting to their needs. However, there was a condition for airlines to be allowed t use AQP, one of the conditions being adopted of CRM and LOFT for their flight crews. They were also required to integrate CRM principles concepts with their technical training. Currently, most airlines in the United States are still transiting to AQP in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations Part 121 and 135 (Helmreich et al., 1999). In order to fully shift to AQP, airlines are required to carry out a detailed analysis of their training requirements for each of their aircraft and come up with CRM programs that mitigates human factors. In addition, most airlines have also started to prioritize the concepts that are evaluating the specific behaviors to be added to their check list. This is meant to ensure that decisions and actions taken are based on informed considerations and the basic principles are taken into consideration.

The fourth generations CRM program are aimed at solving the problem of human errors in aviation through integration of CRM into the flight training. The recent trends show that explicit CRM training is going away. Although there is no empirical data available, there is census in the airline industry that AQP will yield improving in training and qualifications of crews increasing the probability of elimination of human errors (Helmreich et al., 1999). However, the situation remains more complex and there is no direct resolution as the program is still evolving.

CRM in civil and military applications

CRM has been applied in both civil and military crews as they are both faced with danger of pilot errors. CRM has evolved over the years and today, it is a part of pilot training. It is considered a necessity and has imbedded in crew training. FAA issued an advisory circular (AC) 120-51 which stipulates the need for CRM training with behavioral markers which include three main areas (Helmreich et al., 1999). First, FAA emphasizes on communication process and decision making behavior which include briefings, inquiry, crew self-critique, and communication/design. Second, it emphasize on team building and maintenances including leadership, interpersonal relationships, and group climate. Third, it emphasize on workload management and situational awareness including preparing and planning, workload distribution, and avoiding distractions.

Since 1980s when CRM was first adopted by United Airlines, other airlines have followed suite and today every airline has a CRM program. In addition, airlines started expanding CRM programs to other related fields. While initially CRM was meant for pilots, it was expanded to cover air traffic control, aircraft design, and maintenance in third and fourth generation of CRM. In 2000, FAA issued Advisory Circular 120-72 which put in place Maintenance Resource Management training (MRM) which expanded the reach of CRM (Diehl, 1991). CRM in aviation has evolved from first generation CRM to the current fourth generation programs that have continued to change in approach, content and reach.

There is enough evidence which shows that CRM has been applied in military, even earlier than in civil aviation although it came to limelight only after it was applied in civil aviation. Situational awareness training has been recorded in military aviation. For example during 1970s, USAF replaced F-4 with single seat F-15 (Diehl, 1991). Consequently, this raised concerns about pilot workload and situational emergency training was undertaken to accustom pilots with situational emergency skills. USAF Tactical Air Command also has an Aircrew Attention Awareness Management Program that is uniquely designed to assist fighter pilots and all weaponry system officers with skill which impose on their physiological and psychological factors that affect their efficiency. They are taken through special training by trained physiologists assigned to fighter training unit.

In 1980s, U.S Air National Guard was concerned that the A-7 pilots would not maintain proficiency while flying on low attitudes (Diehl, 1991). This was considered a major challenge considering that military flying is sensitive and any error could result to the disaster for the whole country. Consequently, it started the Low Attitude Training program which taught pilots how to overcome the hazards which were posed by operation in low attitudes, highly dangerous and critical environment. For example, it was realized that there was danger of flying low over bushes in desserts because they appeared to be of the same size as big trees at a higher speed.

U.S Navy, through the Naval Safety Center, reviewed and instituted new CRM programs in 1986. They formally instituted CRM training programs for all Navy and Marine Corps helicopter in 1987 (Diehl, 1991). In 1988, they started CRM training for A-6/EA “Intruder” fighter-bomber units. Military records show that since these programs were started, the number of helicopter mishaps has reduced drastically. For example, for the fighter-bombers, the rate of aircrew mishap in 1990 was 1.43 compared to 7.86 in 1986 before these program were started, which represent about 81% improvement rate (Diehl, 1991). In USAF Airlift Command, MAC was the first military organization to introduce CRM training in 1985, referred to as Aircrew Coordination Training. With more than 1,000 transporters and helicopters, this organization was suited to adopt CRM training. Over a period of 5 years, 1981-1985 was compared to another period of 5 years, 1986-1990, and the number of aircrafts destroyed reduced from 21 to 10, which was a 52% improvement. The rate of mishap reduced by 51 (Diehl, 1991).

The future of CRM

Considering the historical development, it is evident that the future of CRM is bright and promising. CRM has continued to be refined over the years to address he intended purpose. The future of CRM lies in development of fight generation CRM that will be focused on searching for a universal rationale. The future will be looking for development of a CRM program that would be endorse by pilots all over the world (Helmreich et al., 1999). This would be developed in line of need for error management approach. This would give an explicit reason why CRM emphasize on development of specific behaviors and how they should be applied.

The fifth generation CRM program will be based on the approach that human errors are inevitable and ubiquitous. Hence they would be viewed as valuable source of information for their management. If errors will be considered inevitable, then CRM will be perceived as error countermeasures in three realms (Helmreich et al., 1999). First realm would be avoiding the errors. The second realm would be trapping the errors before they precipitate. Third realm would be mitigating the effects of the errors if they occur.

Therefore, the future of CRM would rely on the collaboration between organizations and their crew. It will take an approach of non punitive measures for errors once committed based on earlier presumption that errors are inevitable. Organizations will therefore have to normalize errors and take steps to identify their nature and sources. FAA will continue issues new safety aviation safety programs which will affect CRM in different ways (Helmreich et al., 1999). Therefore, future of CRM will be based on normalization of errors and development of error management strategies.

Conclusion

Crew Resource Management (CRM) encompass wide range of programs that are aimed at training crew members on management of interpersonal and decision making factors that contribute to errors during flight. CRM was developed in response to the rising number of aviation accidents which could be attributed to human errors. CRM programs have evolved over a period time to expand its reach to more crew members apart from pilots. CRM has reduced the number of accidents attributed to human errors in both civil and military aviation. The future of CRM will be in development of fifth generation CRM programs that will be based on error management. If the current trend in development of CRM is maintained, the future aviation industry will significantly reduce fatal accidents and mishaps attributed to human errors.


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