Cabin crew: We’re human too

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The primary function of cabin crew is passenger safety. Image: iStockphoto.com / Sean Locke

Cabin crew contributor Patricia Green points out that human factors and crew resource management are concepts that extend well beyond the flight deck

Human factors became a serious topic in civil aviation after the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 in the Florida Everglades in 1972. This crash was due to the flight deck crewmembers becoming fixated on a faulty landing gear light and not realising that the autopilot had been inadvertently switched off, causing the aircraft to gradually descend until it hit the swamp of the Everglades.

A concept called cockpit resource management was introduced into pilot training to try to stop similar accidents happening. The emphasis of cockpit resource management was to develop teamwork as an alternative to the prevailing model in which the captain’s judgement and authority were unquestionable, a situation which led to poor decisions by captains going unchallenged and to captains becoming overloaded with responsibilities during in-flight emergencies because of a failure to delegate tasks.

This was later developed in the 1990s to become crew resource management (CRM) which extended the cockpit resource management concept to communications between the flight deck and the cabin crew. One accident that contributed to this realisation was Air Ontario Flight 1363, which crashed soon after take-off in Dryden, Canada, in 1989. In the accident report, the sole surviving flight attendant said:

‘We work as two crews. You have a front-end crew and a back-end crew.’

CRM helps to improve the communication between both crews so they have a better understanding of one another’s jobs but also to break down barriers in status or fear of reporting. Joint training is very common in most airlines, with emphasis on practical scenarios and case studies to further enhance the relationship. Another accident that prompted the need for development of this training (and is often used as an example) was the crash of British Midland Flight 92 at Kegworth, in England in 1989. In the accident report by the AAIB, it was discovered that the flight crew shut down the working engine causing the accident. Cabin crew missed the captain’s reference to the right engine when he spoke to the passenger cabin, although several passengers on the left of the aircraft, who had seen sparks and flame from the engine on their side, were puzzled by it. It was also reported that the cabin crew ‘Didn’t feel it was their business … ’ to report further.

So what are the difficulties in communication between flight crew and cabin crew? Different personalities and motivations can come into play, as well as status and cultural gaps. Also, flight crew and cabin crew may have different schedules and flight time limitations. The locked flight deck door and sterile cockpit rules also can make communication difficult on a practical level. Cabin crew are now encouraged to speak to the flight crew about any potential threat in the cabin and not be afraid to do so, be it a smell or sound, an unusual vibration or a suspicious passenger—anything out of the usual or that is not routine. Crew briefings are also joint, where possible, and interactive. CRM is about teamwork and synergy and a team-solving approach. Communication, leadership and decision-making are all very important factors. Open and honest reporting systems should also be in place and there should be a culture that allows lessons to be learned from any incidents or accidents. CRM training creates trust between all crew members, that could save lives in an emergency. This can also be extended to engineers, dispatch crew, ground crew and management, so that safe and efficient flights can be expected and achieved.

Within the cabin, many elements of human factors to be considered. The passenger relationship can be a difficult one, as often the airlines are keen to fit in as many seats on the aircraft as possible and aircraft are becoming more cramped. There are more cases than ever of disruptive passengers, due to anger, loss of control or substance abuse. There is a perception that cabin crew are just waiters/waitresses and not the safety professionals that they are trained to be. On regional carriers with smaller aircraft, only one cabin crew is necessary: one for every 36 passengers in Australia, one in every 50 for most other countries. This could mean, as a sole crew member, you are responsible for everything that happens inside the cabin, including dealing with disruptive passengers and potentially threatening situations. Sole cabin crew often feel like there is lack of support from their peers and feel psychological pressure.

In recent times, there has been a rise in passengers taking off cabin baggage in aircraft evacuations, which could injure someone else, impede an evacuation and damage the slide. Examples of this include Emirates Flight 521 in Dubai in 2016, where video footage shot in the cabin shows passengers trying to retrieve items from the overhead lockers. The evacuation was successful, no thanks to these people, although for unrelated reasons a firefighter lost his life. In the crash of Aeroflot Flight 1492 in May this year, the outcome was much worse, with 41 people losing their lives including one cabin crewmember stationed at the back of the aircraft. Reports suggest that passengers sitting aft of row 10 were not able to evacuate because passengers in front of them were collecting their baggage.

There’s a clear need to stop this kind of passenger behaviour and allow the cabin crew to do their job—but how? Safety demonstrations have been made more varied and amusing to engage passenger interest, but safety instructions are still being ignored. There should be more awareness, maybe even at the airport before the flight to show the implications of not complying with the instructions of cabin crew—our lives depend on it too!

Within aircraft cabin design, ergonomics need to be considered, everything from the cabin crew jump seats to emergency equipment, galley and trolley design, emergency exits and signage, and emergency floor lighting for crew and passengers to be able to evacuate easily in an emergency situation. Cabin safety experts and cabin crew focal groups must have a strong say in cabin design and its fitness for purpose. Does the galley flow allow for efficient service? Can emergency equipment be easily reached? Are the aisles, exit size and seat pitch wide enough to allow a full aircraft to be evacuated in 90 seconds? The practicalities of working in the cabin for long hours, under stress and fatigued, tied with potential threats such as turbulence and disruptive passengers, all need to be reviewed.

Human factors in the cabin and the cockpit have no doubt improved and lowered the risk of incidents and accidents and contributed to a safer working environment on board the aircraft. However, we should now also be examining human factors in relation to the passenger and what we can do to improve safety awareness in the cabin.

Further Information

https://www.casa.gov.au/aircraft/cabin-safety/cabin-safety-bulletin

https://lessonslearned.faa.gov/Fokker/000347.pdf

https://www.gov.uk/aaib-reports/4-1990-boeing-737-400-g-obme-8-january-1989

https://aviation-safety.net/EK521

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Well researched article, trouble is those in the industry already know all that, it’s the grubby Airline management that such things need to be driven home to! Remember Airlines aren’t in business to make you feel good, that’s a secondary concern (if at all!) they are in it to make MONEY & you couldn’t get a more cesspool of an industry!
    At the LCC level FA’s have a high turnover hence experience & the ability to work the problem is limited, what does that tell us?
    I’d hate to be a FA as it’s the worst job on the plane! I’ve seen them all, from intimidating SFA’s to outright sooks who should never have been assessed as suitable!
    I recall one day whilst flying along trying not to fall asleep one of the FA’s who was new & had just been checked to line was asked if she would like to come up front, take the jump seat learn a few things, she did but obviously with hesitation. lovely young lass but sweating bullets cause of us two old farts:-):-) At the end of the day she really knew nothing about what goes on in the cockpit other than to stay out of there! That’s CRM for ya!
    We are damned lucky we have an excellent safety record in Oz cause I’d hate to see the results of a full blown emergency here !
    Go to the real source of all problems, the Airlines themselves!

  2. Automatic electric locking of the overhead lockers under the control of the senior cabin crew member could be activated as soon as necessary prior to an impending incident.

    • I agree with you. It shouldn’t be necessary and it’s one more piece of equipment likely to fail at some stage. The ignorance and selfishness of many people in our society is breathtaking.

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