Cabin Crew Report: Addressing Operational Human Factor Issues

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Introduction

Flight deck and cabin crews perform distinct responsibilities which must be harmonized to enhance effectiveness (Zhu & Ma 2015, n.p). While the cockpit involves a highly specialized environment with structured tasks, the cabin comprises of the unstructured workforce who are more physically and socially interactive. The two departments have two different chains of commands with flight attendants directly answerable to the marketing department.  In some cases, pilots are not accommodative of the instructions from the cabin crew while in other instances; the flight attendants ignore directives from the Cockpit resulting into the coarse interaction between the two departments (Chute & Weiner 1996, p.256). As a result achieving optimal communication is a challenge is most airlines thus compromising the safety standards whereby Cabin Crew do not pass adequate information about disruptive events until after the aircraft has landed. Based on these grounds, this report will examine three strategies to address the concerns of coordination from the perspective of individual behavior and systemic issues.

In order to adequately address operational human factor issues, this report will rely on past research articles. It will also examine case studies and previous reports on instances of poor communication between the two departments as well as the resulting consequences.  Based on these methods, I will suggest three strategies, the operational cost, and benefits of implementation.

Concerns of inefficient communication between the cabin attendants and the flight crew are not only present issues. There are several instances when poor communication between the two departments has contributed to unpleasant outcomes. Air Ontario F-28 is one of the incidents in 1989 whereby poor communication between the cabin crew members and the cockpit resulted in a crash on take-off. As a result, 24 people died and several others suffered injuries (Chute & Weiner 1995, p.211). The investigation report revealed that Sonia Hartwick, the flight attendant who survived the air crash noticed a wet snow building up on the wings of the airplane but failed to pass on the information to the flight crew for two reasons. First, she was aware of the pilots’ attitude towards operational information from the cabin crew which discouraged her from making such attempts. Secondly, she had assumed that pilots’ training and level of professionalism was adequate to address such issues and that the training was sufficient to enable the flight crew to handle such risks.

Similar occurrences when planes crash shortly after take-off pointing to the lack of proper coordination are common in the modern aviation industry (BBC News 2016, n.p). In December 2016, Russian military jet Tu-154 crashed in the Black Sea soon after takeoff killing all the 92 passengers and crew. On the other hand, in the year 2010, Ethiopian Airline Jet from Beirut crashed and killed 89 people shortly after takeoff. Unfortunately, in both cases, all the passengers and the crew did not survive to give the exact account of the cross team collaboration before the disasters.

Meanwhile, the incidents can be attributed to poor communication stemming from poor coordination between the flight crew and the cabin crew. As a result, some problems such as severe turbulence smokes from the cabin, and other safety related information remain unreported due to sterile cockpit regulation, pilots’ dismissal as well as fear of penalties among others. Severe accidents have also been caused when captains’ actions result into poor coordination between other flight crew as in the case of Northwest Airlink Jetstream in 1993. In this case, Captain Flitz was reportedly provocative and constantly intimidated both the flight and cabin crew members. Besides other causes expressed in the investigating board, lack of coordination chiefly contributed to the crash (BBC News 2016, n.p). The 2013 Tatarstan Airline Boeing 737 crash is a similar situation of airline accidents during landing when cabin crew is restricted from passing any information to the cockpit, even safety related concerns due to the sterile regulation.

It is apparent in the few incidences stated that the safety-critical situations in an aircraft require well-coordinated and joint efforts between cabin crew and the cockpit crew (Chute & Weiner 1995, p.221). The March 1989 Air Ontario F-28 crash would have been averted if the flight attendant, Hartwick reported the incident of snow building on the wings or if the off-duty airline pilot had assumed the professional courtesy and informed the pilot of the concerns of the snow. In as much as the aircraft accidents are sometimes blamed on the poor coordination between cockpit and cabin crew, there is need to consider the existing separation between the two departments which cripples effective communication. Apart from the reasons pointed out by Hartwick, training, attitude, and the chain of command also play a significant role in promoting ineffective communication between the two teams.

Training of the cabin crew over-emphasizes on the sterile cockpit rule and limited operational knowledge while that of the flight crew is highly specialized with little concerns of the passenger interests (Chute & Weiner 1996, p.270). The existing discrepancies give room for poor communications and considerations between the two departments. Moreover, most pilots have an attitude towards cabin crew members, especially when reporting on technical problems. In most cases, the flight attendants are ignored, slighted, and sometimes subjected to punitive measures for what pilots refers to as disturbance during critical moments in landing and or takeoff. As a result, the cabin crew keeps silent on issues which sometimes turn out to be detrimental to the safety of those on board and crew for fear of these consequences. Finally, the defined chain of command whereby both the cabin and flight crew are answerable to different departments resulting in a lack of proper communication is necessary.

The discussion section entails three strategies that will enhance the relationship between the cabin crew and the flight crew based on the hierarchy of control methodologies. It also encompasses the operational costs and benefits of each strategy. Notably, the flight crew comprises of the captain who acts as the chief decision maker; First Officers also referred to as the co-pilots and an engineer or observer for the large aircraft. However, due to the current influence of cockpit automation, the position of an engineer has been substantially undermined even for Airbuses flying transoceanic routes. The cabin crew majorly consists of the Cabin crew service director acting as the reference person. There are also pursuers or in-flight supervisors, air hostess and trainees in that order of command. Operating under these two departments with various lines of authority requires proper strategies that will guide communication; reduce constraints while maintaining safety standards through professionalism. The following approaches will reinforce trust between the groups and improve the effectiveness of role performance:

As a strategy designed to improve the relationship within and between teams, CMR addresses three major areas that are training, leadership, and experience (Zhu & Ma 2015, n.p). Joint training of pilots and cabin crew members is vital in removing the barriers to communication and enhancing the perception of each party towards others. The team gets an opportunity to learn from one another in a different environment unlike the physical and psychological separation due to contact restrictions during flights. It is due to lack of joint training that the cabin crew and the cockpit only come together during safety-critical situations which necessitate that they operate together to achieve a common goal. Following the extended periods of incompatibility, flight crew and the cabin crew find it difficult to collaboratively work together in the event of the need to change from normal to emergency tasks. Therefore, joint training as part of the crew resource management process enables these parties to be familiar with the different roles that they play to facilitate effective cooperation during emergency instances (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, 280). Training also eliminates negative attitudes and provides ease of access to information, interpretation as well as acceptance of other benefits.

Joint crew management resource also involves shared leadership within and across the two departments (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, p.274). In as much as the captain is the top authority on board, their position is immobile, and therefore they rely on information from the cabin crew. At the same time, the pursuers who are entrusted to relay the information to the cockpit also must depend on the help of the passengers and the other members of the cabin crew to get the vital information especially in the cases of emergency. The final decision making will rely on the information gathered across the departments. It is thus so that there is some level of shared leadership which is only possible through CMR which will ensure that crucial information regarding problem-solving is conveyed appropriately for an effective action. Shared leadership will also ensure there is harmony between the different departments so that once on board, the crew operates as a unit in pursuit of a common goal, safety.

Gaining the desirable experience in the various roles in both departments is also an important aspect of the joint crew management strategy. In most cases, flight attendants neglect instructions just because they lack adequate information on what takes place in the cockpit. In as much as pilots get an opportunity to observe cabin crew perform their duties, they rarely undertake these tasks to get a proper understanding of the experience. Joint CRM strategy considers allowing flight attendants familiarity with the roles of the cockpit when offered an opportunity to be in the jumpseat during takeoff and landing. As a result of jumpseat familiarization, the cabin crew will understand the variations in workload and result in improved communication and relationship between the cabin crew and the flight crew (Chute & Weiner 1996, p.271). Similarly, when pilots participate in the cabin procedures, they are more likely to change their attitudes towards the flight attendants and improve the relationship through soft dismissal and more accommodative responses which will encourage healthy interactions.

Undertaking a joint crew management resource program has outstanding costs. The charges associated with conducting training for both pilots and flight attendances are huge and require a significant amount of resources. Most companies have not implemented the CRM programs citing resource constraints and fear of investing resource on the crew who are highly mobile regarding employee turnover. In some cases, differences in the roles played by the flight crew and the cabin crew are cited as the reason why joint training is not necessary. It is argued that such joint CMR programs have very limited effects that can be covered through refresher training. In as much as the CMR programs receive some little resistance, the benefits are profound, and whenever they are adequately implemented such as in Southwest Airlines, there are significant positive outcomes.  Meanwhile, putting the flight crew and the cabin crew under one department has been unsuccessful owing to the variations in the duties and level of specialization required though it is possible (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, p.279). Therefore, the benefits of implementing the joint CMR strategy are greater than its costs owing to the role it will play in avoiding unnecessary incidents due to an improved relationship between the two departments through effective leadership, training, and relevant experience.

Policies are regulatory measures that are instated to guide the behavior of persons during aircraft operations. They also define the precise boundaries concerning tasks that flight attendant, pilot or any other person on should not exceed. The policies play a significant role in airline operations. However, they also act as stumbling blocks to smooth communication procedures and interaction. In view of system constraints, the strategy seeks to redefine the established operation procedures, enlighten the crew on the sterile cockpit rule, and enhance teamwork among the crew.

Redefining operation systems service procedures through policy measures will ensure that pilots and flight attendants are guided with a similar objective to improve consistency and efficiency in communication (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, p.279). Current policies provide a room for inconsistencies in goals and corporate structures, thereby, allowing for the pursuit of separate interests among the two departments. As a result, there is a lack of commonality even in the procedures for handling emergency situations. When policies allow for placement of cabin and cockpit crew under the same vice presidents, the inconsistencies will be greatly reduced creating room for effective communication.

The policy approach will also set the standard of expertise required of the cabin crew. In most cases, poor communications occur when flight attendants lack technical terms to define the situations they consider critical to the safety of the passengers. As a result, pilots take their warnings lightly resulting in accidents. For instance, flight attendants report that they hear funny or unusual sounds, some liquid or a thump indicating a lack of terms to refer to mechanical anomalies. Therefore, as a policy measure, the cabin crew should undergo some relevant technical training as a compulsory requirement to enhance their ability to report technical problems without being conceived as ignorant by pilots or first officers (Chute & Weiner 1995, p.229). In this way, cabin crew will relay credible information instigating immediate action in cases of emergency.

The policy approach to enhancing communication and the relationship will involve a reexamination of the sterile cockpit rule (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, p.218). Notably, the cabin crew training emphasizes on the regulation making it supreme to the safety of the aircraft. Due to the lack of communication consideration when implementing this rule, lives of cabin crew and passengers have been endangered. Due to fear of repercussions associated with sterile cockpit rule, flight attendants sometimes remain silence even when severe turbulence results in injuries to passengers and cabin attendants during landing or takeoff. In such cases, pilots fail to initiate emergency landing, and the delays lead to severe impacts. It is necessary that the policy guideline put more emphasis on the safety communication instead of sterility of the condition and the punitive measures attached to it. It implies that there will be a change of perception between the cockpit and cabin crews.

Restrictive policies defining a hierarchy of control will be reviewed to enable adequate access to the desired information (Chute & Wiener 1996, p.230). A closer examination of the sources of information reveals that passengers also act as a vital source of critical information. Policy-approach that creates appropriate structures of information flow and communication channels will enhance the relationship between cabin crew and the cockpit crew in two ways. Firstly, it will improve the spirit of teamwork since it will allow for free flow of information. When there is teamwork among the crew, professionalism in interaction will prevail reducing the fear of being undermined by senior personnel. Secondly, it will define the relationship between the team and the groups resulting in the effective coordination of communication that originate from every department operating an aircraft. Additionally, it will allow for scrutiny of information reaching the cockpit crew to avoid unnecessary distraction, especially during sterile cockpit conditions.

The application of the policy approaches strategy to remedy the communication problems between the cockpit and cabin crews involve the limited use resources (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, p.273). Change in an organization policy, like any other change is gradual. It implies that it can take an extended period to effect changes to the existing policies satisfactorily. On the other hand, some form of resistance to the changes will also suffice particularly in the implementation stages. In order to adequately implement the desired changes, the management should involve the employees in developing the policies so that they address the immediate problems facing the cabin and cockpit crews.

Planning can also be used as a strategic way to address the communication drifts between the cabin and flight crews. Using planning as a strategy involves two aspects that are scheduling and general concerns of operations. In regards to planning the trips, it is a rare opportunity to find a cabin crew and the cockpit crew fly a whole trip together especially on the international flights. The captains and flight attendants have different work rules, duty periods as well as working for various organizations. As a result, pilots have always failed to undertake proper briefing which is a prerequisite for effective communication. In such cases, there is no rapport between the two groups since they only operate within a limited period that is less than a day and also anticipate a few hours of contact considerably. Apparently, when an emergency situation occurs, it is the first time that the groups come into meaningful contact which may result into withholding information or failure to act upon particular instruction (Bienefield & Grote 2014, p.280). The scheduling of duties contributes to the team building which can improve communication or compromise the groups’ capability to communicate.

It implies that scheduling of flight should involve meaningful periods of interaction and contact between the cabin and the flight crews. Notably, a familiarity that comes as a result of longer periods of interaction improves the relationship between the groups. It is through such schedules that flight attendants become familiar with the carry over procedures, they get to discover what is normal and what is not, and lastly, they can operate cohesively as a unit without confusing roles. Besides the better communications that come with proper scheduling, the pilots are also spared the need for a constant briefing of the cabin crew which in most cases they do not satisfactorily accomplish. It implies that the schedules allow for prior discussion of the barriers to communication after which the cabin crew will persistently abide with the instructions throughout the subsequent flights. When proper scheduling is done whereby flight and cabin crews are allowed to operate for longer periods of time, there is the likelihood that they will for a more cohesive team with healthy relationships and effective communication.

Planning also addresses ambiguous situations whereby individuals fail to play their roles due to lack of adequate guidelines (Bienefeld & Grote 2014, p.274). Instances of ambiguity in the chain of command are blamed on the improper planning of the flight resulting in role conflict or ignorance. For example, while Hartwick was blamed for failing to report the building snow on the aircraft’s wing, the pilot needed to include such concerns in his plan to device before resulted in a disaster. With proper planning of the flight operations, the link between the cabin and cockpit is so clear that there is a smooth flow of information leaving no room for the negligence of critical safety concerns. It implies that planning can address the general concerns without conflicts or fear of conveying information from the cabin crew to the flight crew.

Evidently, poor communication and coordination between the cabin and cockpit crews have resulted into several incidences of an airplane crash. Examining the past articles and reports of plane crash boards of investigation points to the existence of miscommunication in both the past and present airline operations. In order to improve the relationship between the two groups that is the flight and the cabin crews, this report suggests three strategies that are joint Crew Management Resource (CMR), policy approaches as well as planning. Notably, there is resource required to implement the approaches among other costs successfully. The strategies can be applied jointly to realize an adequate outcome.

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