Running Head: IMPACT OF AUTOMATION ON FLIGHT CREWS’ GROUP PROCESS
Impact of Aircraft Automation on Flight Crews’ Group Process
Mersie A. Melke
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach, Florida
Department of Distance Learning
Instructor: Susan Bailey-Schmidt
Impact of Automation on Group Process 1
January 29, 2015Abstract
The intent of automation in aircraft is to decrease the number of human errors and the
consequent incidents or accidents. Coherent with this, automation aims to relieve the pilots
flying the aircraft, from removable workload. Therefore, assertion that the automated system
is an additional crewmember of the already existing crew of human pilots seems fair. This
paper examines how automation affects the group process of a human flight crew. In order to
analyze a typical flight crew environment, the paper defines the contents of a flight crew’s
group process for an uneventful flight phase. Based on this assumption, this paper analyzes
both positive and negative implications of automation on pilots’ group process.
Impact of Automation on Group Process 2
Flight Crew Group Processes
The duty of a flight crew assigned to transport passengers over a route is to provide a
safe passage for the travelers. At the same time, the crew should achieve an efficient
performance of this duty to bring profit to the airline. As a result, flight crews capable of
carrying out a safe and efficient flight have a group process common to all of them. One of
the components of this group process is communication.
Communication in a flight crew is the process by which crewmembers get a model of
their work environment. It is via briefing, a form of communication, that the flight crew of a
certain flight leg gets knowledge of its duties and responsibilities. Communication in the
cockpit is a tool necessary to create a shared mental model of the flight instruments, flying
environment and individual inputs from the pilots. Inquiry, assertion and self-critique are all
part of the communication process of a healthy flight crew (Helmreich, Foushee, 1993).
Coherent with communication, decision tasks are another component of flight crew
group processes (Helmreich, Foushee, 1993). This component covers activities of flight crew
that address the fate of flight maneuvers accommodating the idea of external inputs from the
aircraft, air traffic controller and fellow crewmembers. It may also span its application in
areas of crew conflict resolution to harness the optimal output from individual crewmembers.
A third component of pilots’ process is team formation and management tasks
(Helmreich, Foushee, 1993). From the moment, a pilot accepts a flight assignment to the time
the pilot accomplishes that job, the crewmember is part of a team. This team has a shared
purpose of getting passengers safely and efficiently to their destination. However, since
individuals comprise this team, variable individual thoughts are also part of this team.
Therefore, in order to come up with a team thought process, team management is necessary
from the moment of formation to the time of disbandment.
Impact of Automation on Group Process 3
A fourth group process is the situational awareness and workload management of the
flight crew (Helmreich, Foushee, 1993). This component is interrelated with the above-
mentioned group process components. In addition, it has it own unique identifying features.
One feature is the vigilance involved to ascertain situational awareness. In addition, this
vigilance calls for preparation and planning for the flight route. Ensuring optimal distribution
of workload amongst the crewmembers, prioritizing tasks and avoiding distraction are also
identifying features of this component of pilots’ group process.
The above processes are the cognitive and interpersonal functions of pilots’ group
processes. Another part of these processes is the man- machine interface task. This part
reflects the technical proficiency of the crew. Aircraft control tasks such as aircraft power
control, flight control and navigation fall within this category. In addition, procedural tasks
such as checklists or manual handling, air traffic controller usage, systems operation and
expertise and skill of abnormal operations is part of this category (Helmreich, Foushee,
Therefore, the integration of the above-mentioned group processes maintains a
purposeful flight crew. Now that components of pilots’ group process have been identified, it
is possible to comprehend the effect of automation on these identified components.
Consequently, the following paragraphs examine the effects of automation on the group
processes within a cockpit. In addition, they assess effects on individual pilots as the
individual changes makeup the whole group process.
Effects of automation on group processes
It is a fact that automation of aircraft has decreased the workload of flight crew.
Coherent with this, the way of operating an aircraft changed due to the advent of automation.
The shift from active control to monitoring changed not only the type of cognitive activity
demanded, but also the associated consequences (Mosier, 2002). Although the impact of
Impact of Automation on Group Process 4
automation in terms of numbers of decision errors is positive, reduction of some types of
errors accompanied the introduction of new varieties of automation-related errors (Mosier,
Skitka, Dunbar, McDonnell, 2001).
By replacing the human operator with automated equipment in an attempt to eliminate
human error, another potential form of human error emerges (Mouloua, Smither, Vincenzi,
Smith, 2002). The perfection and reliability of the automated equipment depends on the
hardware and software capabilities designed and built by humans. Even though a system
becomes less vulnerable to operator error through introduction of automation, it is more
vulnerable to designer error (Mouloua, Smither, Vincenzi, Smith, 2002).
In particular, the availability of automation and automated decision aids facilitates an
existing human tendency to make the least amount of cognitive effort. Decision makers have
displayed a tendency to use these aids as a replacement for vigilant information seeking and
processing, a phenomenon referred to as automation bias (Mosier, Skitka, Dunbar,
McDonnell, 2001). Consequently, automation bias entails omission errors or commission
errors. Omission errors are failures to take necessary action or to respond to system
irregularities when not prompted to do so by an automated device. Commission errors occur
when operators inappropriately follow an automated directive or recommendation without
verifying it against other available information or despite contradictions from other sources of
information. (Mosier, Skitka, Dunbar, McDonnell, 2001)
Airline cockpit crews are a hierarchical team and the decision making process they go
through is influenced by detail constructs of a team or group process (Mosier, Skitka,
Dunbar, McDonnell, 2001). These constructs are team informity, staff validity and
hierarchical sensitivity. The first construct is the degree to which the team, as a whole, is
aware of all of the relevant cues or information. Staff validity is the degree to which each
member of the team can produce valid judgments on the decision object. The third construct,
Impact of Automation on Group Process 5
hierarchical sensitivity, is the degree to which the team leader effectively weights team
member judgments in arriving at the team’s decision (Mosier, Skitka, Dunbar, McDonnell,
The level of autonomy and authority incorporated into modern automated systems,
however, may also give them the character of independent agents, or team members, whose
expertise may encourage team leaders to weight their input above that of other members,
affecting hierarchical sensitivity (Mosier, Skitka, Dunbar, McDonnell, 2001). Another
automation related error is that team members may use automated input as a shortcut in
decision making, whether or not its staff validity is high, given the characteristics of a
particular situation. Time constraints, especially in critical events, may exacerbate the
tendency to rely on a few information cues (Mosier, Skitka, Dunbar, McDonnell, 2001).
Effect of automation on individual pilots
In modern, high tech aircraft, the flying task is much more cognitively than physically
demanding. The cockpit is now an electronic, deterministic environment, in which primary
task of pilot is to supervise and monitor systems and information displays to ensure
consistency, or coherence, of the “world” and to restore it when disruption occur (Mosier,
2002). The automated cockpit brings cues that were in the outside environment in to the
cockpit and displays them as reliable and accurate information rather than probabilistic cues.
This changes the goal of pilot cognition from correspondence, or empirical accuracy in using
probabilistic cues for diagnosis, judgment, and prediction to coherence, or rationality and
consistency in diagnostic and judgment processes (Mosier, 2002).
Amalberti and Sarter in their paper dated 2000, p.4, had stated the change due to
automation on cockpit crew as follow;
“The development and introduction of modern automation technology has led to new
cognitive demands. The result is new knowledge requirements (e.g. understanding
Impact of Automation on Group Process 6
the functional structure of the system), new communication tasks (e.g. knowing how
to instruct the automation to carry out a particular task), new data management tasks
(e.g. knowing when to look for, and where to find, relevant information in the
system’s data architecture), and new attentional demands (e.g. tracking the status and
behavior of the automation as well as the controlled process).”
The two cognitive processes, coherence and cognition, differ in the way of execution
and resource usage they involve. Coherence and correspondence are an either/or process
which cannot be done simultaneously by an individual (Mosier, 2002). Correspondence
involves relating work environment cues with previous experience or instrument readings or
both to come up with a decision. The goal of correspondence in cognition is empirical
objective accuracy in human judgment (Mosier, 2002). However, coherence involves a
thorough diagnosis of a situation before decision-making. Coherence competence refers to an
individual’s ability to maintain logical consistency in judgments and decisions (Mosier,
A pilot for example exercises coherence competency when scanning the information
displayed inside the cockpit to ensure that system parameters, flight modes, and navigational
displays are consistent with each other and with what should be present in a given situation
(Mosier, 2002). Conversely, correspondence judgments without reference to the real world
are impossible. In addition, evaluation of these judgments is according to how well they
represent, predict, or explain objective reality (Mosier, 2002).
Humans are “cognitive misers” and tend to take the path of least cognitive effort
while making decisions, which makes usage of heuristic judgment (Mosier, 2002). In
aviation, the use of heuristics such as availability of cues, the judgment of the likelihood of
events dependent on the ease of pilot memory recall, the tendency to use event congruency to
judge the likelihood that the current event will have the same outcome, has been identified as
Impact of Automation on Group Process 7
a factor in incidents and accidents (Mosier, 2002). Automated environments induce errors in
coherence judgment, not observed in non-automated environment. This susceptibility persists
even when two people are sharing responsibility for monitoring, judgment, and decision-
making (Mosier, 2002).
The degree of autonomy and authority of modern automated systems creates a gap in
the operator’s mental model of the automation and its interactions. Low observability
interfaces and situations with none routine elements and conjunctions make it difficult to
operate, track and anticipate the activities of human pilots’ automated partners, producing
automation surprises (Sarter, Woods, 1999). Observability refers to the ability of available
feedback to actively support operators in monitoring and staying ahead of system activities
and transitions. Observability is more than data availability: it depends on the cognitive work
needed to extract meaning from availability (Sarter, Woods, 1999).
Operating mode of an Automated Flight System (AFS) distinguishes it. An operating
mode is a way the AFS controls the path of the aircraft. The AFS takes inputs from the
environment (e.g. speed, altitude, geographical position, and attitude) and, based on this,
sends outputs to the aircraft’s control surfaces and other systems in order to reach or maintain
some value on the inputs (Zuschlag, 2002). An operating mode differs from interface mode,
which is a set of parameters displayed and parameter inputs allowed under certain condition
Examples are a page collection on the Central Display Unit (CDU) of a Flight Management
While some operating modes have corresponding interface modes (e.g. HOLD) there
is generally not a one-to-one correspondence (Zuschlag, 2002). Furthermore, even for
operating modes that have corresponding interface modes, at any given time, the operating
mode and the interface mode are independent (e.g. CDU does not have to be on the Vertical
Navigation (VNAV) page in order for the aircraft to be flying in the VNAV operating mode)
Impact of Automation on Group Process 8
(Zuschlag, 2002). A real world example of mode confusion or lack of mode awareness is
crash of China Airlines Flight 140, cited by Hammer in his paper dated 1999, p.549;
“The crew mistakenly activated an automatic go-around without realizing it. The
autopilot tried to increase power and gain altitude while the crew attempted to
maintain power and reduce altitude. Because the crew controlled the elevators and
automation controlled the horizontal stabilizer, the nature of conflict was not
apparent. The aircraft eventually attained an unrecoverable state and then crashed. If
the aircraft had been flown completely manually to a landing, or fully automatic in a
go-around, no accident would have occurred.”
According to Zuschlag (2002), flight automation operation has contributed to the
cause of accidents and incidents for five reasons. One is the issue of mode awareness, which
encompasses that area of lacking where crew do not perceive signals indicating an
uncommanded or programmed change in a mode or mode parameter, or that a mode had
failed to engage as intended. When crew did not anticipate an uncommanded change or
failure to change in the AFS’s mode or parameter for a mode, mode prediction problem arises
which is the second contributing reason in an automated cockpit.
A third contributing problem could be a programming error, which occurs when the
crew makes an entry error in to the AFS and the error surfaces after the aircraft deviates from
the intended path. Coherent with this awkward programming could be the fourth contributing
reason leading to incidents and accidents in an AFS. Crew trying to diagnose a problem with
the AFS, being either that the crew cannot program the AFS as desired or that the AFS has
done something undesirable is also a reason. This distracts the crew from other things
necessary to fly the plane correctly. Time pressure has a negative effect on information
search and diagnosis accuracy, and the presence of none congruent information heightens
these negative effects (Mosier, Sethi, McCauley, Khoo, Orasanu, 2007). Diagnosis
Impact of Automation on Group Process 9
confidence is unrelated to accuracy and has a negative relation to amount of information
accessed (Mosier et al., 2007).
Another study by Damos, John and Lyall (1999) on the effect of automation on
cockpit crew activities asserts that different activities react variably to automation. This study
done on actual revenue flight found that pilots’ of aircraft with advanced levels of cockpit
automation did spend more time looking inside the aircraft during approach when the aircraft
was below 10,000 ft. In contrast, the amount of time spent looking inside the cockpit was not
affected by the level of cockpit automation during climb or descent to 10,000 ft. Defining
activities such as; manipulating frequency on communication radios, manipulating the
controls on the communication selector panel, manipulating the cabin temperature controls,
manipulating the controls on the front panel and manipulating the navigation radios as
housekeeping activities, Damos, John and Lyall (1999) further asserted that increase in
automation did not affect these activities and communication.
What started out as a search for a remedial action of pilot error due to workload has
led to today’s modern aircraft. Contemporary aircraft are capable of collecting data of the
environment they fly in, assimilate the data gathered and provide it in the cockpit as
decisional aids for flight crews. It is evident that removable workload has been alleviated
from flight crew. Flight crew can now use their time in the skies for things other than looking
for the North Star as a navigational aid. In addition, aircraft reliability has increased due to
the advent of automation.
However, together with the above-mentioned positive effects automation has brought
about other effects. Firstly, the way flight occurs has changed and has adopted a cognitive
requirement. In addition, crews are required to be vigilant not just to the environment they are
flying in but also to automated cues onboard that follows and updates the status of the
Impact of Automation on Group Process 10
environment. Flight crews, therefore have to recognize the automated partner as part of their
team and need to make it part of their group process.
As defined in the beginning of this paper, flight crew group processes manifest
through, communication, workload management, situational awareness, team building and
management, decision tasks, aircraft control tasks and procedural tasks (Helmreich, Foushee,
1993). Incorporating the automated partner to be part of a team that practices all the above
will require specialized training and design philosophy that would foster the above factors of
flight crew group processes in the presence of an automated aircraft. However assigning
automation to alleviate workload of flight crew without due consideration of the group
processes will lead to automation related errors. Therefore, what has started out, as an
initiative to decrease error will end up with another form of error, which still may cause
incidents and accidents.
Impact of Automation on Group Process 11
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