The Human Factor of Safety

Safety in the airline industry is a big deal. When crashes happen on an airliner, there tend to be many passenger present, which quickly equates to large losses of life all at one time if the worse comes to pass. Often the media and ourselves jump to a conclusion that something went wrong with the plane. This assumption is often incorrect, with more than half of all air accidents attributed to pilot error, this is by far the number one cause of accidents.

The human factor is the weak point here. As technology has improved, the overall numbers of accidents have continued to decrease, but the percentage attributed to human error has become a larger percentage of those remaining accidents. What are the factors that feed into these accidents?

One the surface, the pilot error component is fairly well known. Fatigue, sensor deprivation at night, poor choices, and many other issues crop up in emergency and even non emergency situations that cause planes to crash. However, outside of the cockpit are more issues that often go overlooked or often uncovered by the media.

Yesterday's article touched briefly on the issues that stem from starting out at a regional carrier. Here, pilots often stick with a single plane all day making many stops all day as they go from city to city to city. Management at these smaller companies often get less scrutiny than the larger companies, causing those in charge to push for longer hours, and lower pay. Pilots don't sleep in personal homes and sometimes are forced to just sleep at the airport. With poor sleep comes impaired judgement and other problems. A situation just like this was attributed to crash in Buffalo, NY right down to the cot in the airport at a small regional carrier.

Industry practices drove the management of this company to push for longer hours and lower pay. This was all backed by how they were paid from the larger companies they served. Further more, the FAA had often failed before and after the crash to push for reformers and greater scrutiny on these dangerous business practices. Instead the FAA bowed to political pressure and failed to reprimand the behavior behind the issue.

Another example of business practices causing safety issues was a case with Southwest. The FAA at some point discovered that employees were being paid off by Southwest to ignore and not preform vital safety checks required of the airline. Each aircraft is required to be taken out of service and go through detailed inspections top to bottom on a regular basis. The older the plane the more extensive the checks are and the longer the plane is out of service. 

Southwest was caught bribing FAA employee to allow planes to go without these checks for years in some cases. While this allowed Southwest to operate planes cheaper and continue to be a low cost carrier, it was done while sacrificing safety of the passenger and crew aboard that plane. To this day I still refuse to fly Southwest because of this incident.

While safety for the most part is well managed on airlines, there are often people who try to skirt the rules in an effort to increase profits. The human factor of air safety isn't just a big deal in the cockpit, it's also a major issue all the way up to management. Safety should always be a high priority, but we should not always be as hyper focused on the cockpit, sometimes a cushy office in a major city is where the problems stem.