Aircraft design and cabin crew training have a huge impact on how passengers react, says Rosalind Azouzi

Human factors uses psychology to examine how people behave in certain situations and how design can have an impact on their behaviour. In aviation, with the interaction between aerospace engineers, pilots, aircraft engineers, cabin crew and the passengers themselves, human factors issues are an increasingly important consideration in aircraft safety.

Human factors specialists work with aeronautical engineers, staff-training organisations and civil aviation regulators, exploring human behaviour in contexts such as how people respond to an emergency situation.

They may look at how cockpit design affects pilot awareness. Does new technology improve or reduce alertness? How long should pilots fly for? What are the types of human error which can easily occur during maintenance?

INFLUENCING DESIGN

Cabin design is one of the fastest-growing sectors of aerospace. The sector is worth about $20bn (£10bn) and is growing at 15 per cent annually. As airlines look to cabin design to increase passenger satisfaction through new in-flight services, some are even using celebrated interior designers to create a more stylish environment on board.

However, the evacuation procedure is just as important to cabin design as designer seating. The type of emergency exit found next to a passenger seat, sometimes known as the Type III, was re-designed with passengers in mind rather than trained cabin crew, using a human factors approach.

In 1985, a fire broke out on an aircraft on Manchester Airport's runway. Many passengers struggled to open the Type III doors, with general panic as the evacuation took place. Only 80 of the 137 onboard survived. This led the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to commission a research programme to make Type III exits easier to operate. A leading human factors expert, Professor Helen Muir of Cranfield University, played a major role in the research. It resulted in an "up and over" design that is more easily operable and takes into account Professor Muir's expertise in passenger behaviour in emergencies, effective evacuation procedures and improving crash survivability.

INFLUENCING CREW

In August 2005, disaster was averted thanks to an understanding of human factors in aircraft design, aviation safety and crew training. An Air France plane skidded off the runway and burst into flames as it landed at Toronto Pearson Airport during a lightning storm. The aircraft, an Airbus A340-300, had never been involved in a major incident before, yet all 309 people on board survived, evacuated in under two minutes.

Many survivors praised the Air France cabin crew who helped the passengers to vacate the aircraft so quickly, highlighting the misconceptions that many have with regards to cabin crew. Easyjet's website confirms the airline view: "The primary reason for having cabin crew on board the aircraft is for the safety of the passengers, aircraft and crew". Therefore, as well as customer service, language and team-working skills, cabin crew must undergo intensive training focused on safety, security and emergency procedures and be able to remain calm in such situations. Communication skills are crucial - many aviation authorities will request that cabin crew brief passengers sitting next to emergency exits individually about how to use the exit in event of an emergency.

As air travel loses its jet-set status with the rise of budget flights, cramped seating conditions and lengthy security procedures at airports, cabin crew also need to recognise a range of passenger behaviour that could cause a serious incident such as drunken, aggressive or nervous fliers. They also need to identify potential onboard security threats. The training and experience gained by cabin crew means that many go on to senior roles within the airline industry, from flight and aircraft operations to planning and training.

CASE STUDY

Jane Neal-Smith Is A Senior Lecturer In The Centre For Civil Aviation At London Metropolitan University

We have two degrees in aviation management; I specialise in aviation psychology and these modules explore issues within Crew Resource Management (CRM), focusing on interpersonal factors within aircraft accidents. This is a new element to the BSc and prepares students for a career in the aviation industry. The modules don't just focus on pilot and cabin crew CRM, but take a more holistic approach to examining existing accidents. This gives a better and more diverse knowledge of CRM and human factors. It's important, because most of our students will go into management rather than being flight or cabin crew.

My research focuses on CRM and human factors within aviation, specifically female airline pilots.

I sit on the board of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Human Factors Group and the CRM advisory panel to the CAA. I am also Chair of the Cabin Crew CRM Standing Group.

These panels examine human factors issues within the industry and make recommendations for the continued improvement of human factors awareness and training.

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