From turbulence in the air to turbulence on the flight deck

United Airlines Flight 173 crashed in Portland, Ore. roughly six miles from the airfield killing two crewmembers, eight passengers and seriously injuring 21 of the 189 people aboard the McDonnell-Douglas DC-8. It was Dec. 28, 1978, when Captain Malburn McBroom became preoccupied with a landing gear malfunction, dismissing concerns of the first officer and the flight engineer who were trying to warn him of the ensuing fuel shortage. Ultimately, the cause of the crash was fuel starvation to all engines.

An outcome of this and previous tragic aviation events was the development of cockpit resource management, now dubbed Crew Resource Management (CRM). Developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and supported by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), their developments were shared with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to recommend that airlines adopt methods of utilizing crew input and leadership styles that are more engaging as opposed to authoritative in decision-making. Today, most major airlines in the U.S. incorporate CRM training into their pilot training programs. However, important components of conflict, relational and interpersonal management skills training in routine operations are cursorily addressed or seemingly missing altogether.

{mosads}Since 1973, when women were permitted to fly commercial aircraft, data from the FAA show slowly changing demographics among pilots in the U.S. More and more traditionally underrepresented groups are flying commercial aircraft today. This includes women, openly gay men and women, and racial minorities that include African-Americans, Asians and Latinos in a profession that is 96 percent male and nearly 90 percent white.

Political differences, gender, sexual orientation, generational divides, age and historical reference are all points of potential conflict between pilots who work long hours in close proximity — confined spaces often smaller than a walk-in closet. A resolute policy and training option is to investigate this new landscape and to teach empirically tested techniques and skill sets that aid in mitigating conflict and restoring order in the critical operation of aircraft.

Trained flight crews, including those in the cabin and on the flight deck, are expected to revert back to their professional standards and training in the event of an emergency. But often, conflict among crewmembers causes distractions. Losing focus on the operation may lead to missing indicators of aircraft trouble. Like many aircraft accidents, they are often the result of cumulative events that continue to build and complicate the situation until it is no longer reversible.

The FAA, NTSB and NASA all collect voluntarily and involuntarily reported data from flight crews concerning procedural outliers, breakdowns in the chain of command, mechanical failures and equipment design flaws in an effort to continually improve the safety of civil aviation. Not surprisingly, you’d be hard pressed to find a pilot’s report that states, “I missed a vector because I was busy arguing with my copilot about the presidential election” or a captain’s report that reads, “I thought she got the job just because she was a woman so I didn’t let her fly the plane.”

Albeit more an exception than the rule, insiders know these are the realities that exist. Industry pressures of maintaining an image of stern professionalism and mechanized reliability preclude divulgence of this information. In so doing, the absence of analysis, training and skills acquisition in conflict management finds a void in the elaborate syllabus of CRM training — a void that finds itself at the expense of the flying public.

Zirulnik is a research associate at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and a Ph.D. candidate in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, where he focuses on issues of conflict and intercultural communication within organizations. He is also chair of the Peace and Conflict Communication Division of the National Communication Association based in Washington, D.C. He also works as an independent consultant and for a large international airline.

Tags FAA Federal Aviation Administration National Transportation Safety Board NTSB

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