Protective Systems

Today I read an article from the Wall Street Journal and it really struck a chord; something powerful which could really be used to our advantage in modern aviation. During my time spent working in different countries, I have been astounded by the varied manner in which normal professional business is conducted: even in multinational corporations where a ‘norm’ is more defined.

We have an industry of immense capability when it comes to data gathering, analysis and change management. We monitor everything. Technical professionals on the ground know when a modern airliner is a ‘bit sick’ long before the pilots do. Aviation is one of those areas in life where any possible prospect for advance is savagely pursued – not just because of the competitive nature of our industry, but because safety is in ALL our interests. Old or young, almost all of us owe our continued existence on this planet to a safely-executed commercial flight at some stage in our past; the safety of that particular flight was the layer of Swiss Cheese (see James Reason) successfully acting as a barrier between our risky willingness to hurl ourselves in to the air at high speed and the promise of a rather untimely demise as a result.

But how was the operation of that flight affected by the nationality of the crew and/or airline? How did the culture associated with that operation affect our successful continuance? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell speaks about the turnaround in Korean Air and how culture was a key factor in the process for change. He also speaks about the mathematical abilities of the Chinese, and how that could be attributed to the way they are required by the rules of their language to describe items in a certain way.

This brings me back to the Wall Street Journal article at

“In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: “The vase broke itself,” rather than “John broke the vase.” “

So what’s my point, I hear you ask?

Aviation relies on a Just Culture: no blame, simply prevention. How is this demonstrated in cultures where the language refers to events in a blameless manner, as reported in the link above, versus cultures where the language is more blame-oriented or individual-specific?

What about this:

“Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn’t tell us whether it’s language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what’s needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.


“One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. And if you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants. (For example, in recent studies, MIT students were shown dots on a screen and asked to say how many there were. If they were allowed to count normally, they did great. If they simultaneously did a nonlinguistic task—like banging out rhythms—they still did great. But if they did a verbal task when shown the dots—like repeating the words spoken in a news report—their counting fell apart. In other words, they needed their language skills to count.)”

Multi-tasking involving linguistic processing is difficult. During my basic pilot training I was taught the concept of “divided concentration” – isolating individual tasks, prioritising and then rapidly switching between them in order to achieve them all… just not at the exact same time. Example: monitoring airspeed, rate of change of altitude, nose attitude and heading, all at “the same time” when in reality it was achieved through a series of small checks one after the other. *When looking for a house number do you turn the radio down? If so, is because there is speech involved? Would the distraction be as great if solely instrumental – e.g. classical – music was playing? How does that apply to the use of hands-free equipment in a car and what about those people who suggest that listening to music is the same as having a conversation?


“Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak.”

…is it therefore ever more important that aviation uses a common language (currently English) and extrapolates that use all the way to the safety management system rather than just the actual flying operation? Does our mother-tongue and main language culture determine how prone we are to certain behaviours, be it in the flight deck, in the airline management or even the regulatory body?

Of course the water is muddy on how to approach this. Changing the culture within Korean Air was a massive task in itself. But spreading cultural change across many nations many be impossible to achieve, as shown with the difficulties encountered in the implementation of the Single European Sky project.

But one thing is clear: a better understanding of how our minds work culturally will lead to better training, better development and implementation of Safety Management Systems, and a wider acceptance that there is real power to be gained through identifying the different traits of different cultures, without being labelled discriminatory or racist in the process. By jumping to conclusions and unnecessarily stereotyping we can really harm our society; but by understanding the innate differences in our culture-born abilities, we can adapt our management systems to make for a safer, stronger commercial aviation culture that acknowledges the one common need across all backgrounds: safety in air travel.


OK, it is fair to say that the low cost carriers are seeing their methods replicated, particularly in short-haul, so that could be your first thought. But actually I refer to safety trends. In the never-ending battle of man versus machine, occasionally versus ground (a battle which we ironically sometimes try to win using yet another machine), who is winning?

Draw your own conclusions with statistics recently published at

In global terms, the accident rate has been declining steadily ever since the 1950s. In 2000, the concern was that, even with that encouraging trend, the growth of the airline industry would result in an absolute increase in the number of fatal accidents occurring each year. Some categories of accident were proving to be a particular challenge. In the late 1990s, the Flight Safety Foundation’s campaign to reduce controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents, which included their Approach and Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) tool kit, appeared initially to have achieved some success. However, in 1999-2001 the CFIT rate started to rise again, causing concern in the flight safety world. Then, the widespread introduction of TAWS began to make a real impact on the number of CFIT accidents, and the decline in the accident rate resumed.

Improvements in overall safety, and the reduction in the accident rate seen in the period 2002-2007 can be attributed to safety enhancements made possible by digital technology such as FDMACASTAWS, etc but in recent years it appears that the accident rate has again levelled out.

For large commercial airliners, a small number of accidents account for the majority of fatalities each year.

This refers to (and explains in more detail) enhancements such as:

  • FDM: Flight Data Monitoring. Flight parameters are downlinked from the aircraft and analysed against limits – throwing up ‘red flags’ where aircraft or operator limitations are exceeded. Can be used to analyse trends and investigate safety reports, as well as identify deliberate violations.
  • ACAS: Airborne Collision Avoidance System. Often referred to as TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System). If something in the system, be it air traffic control, the autopilot, the weather or the pilots, screw up, this will identify airborne threats to the aircraft – i.e. warn of an impending collision which you might have missed.
  • TAWS: Terrain Awareness and Warning System. Often called GPWS or Ground Proximity Warning System. Warns you if you are, in the estimation of the system, likely to hit the ground in an abnormal manner.

So what is the point in mentioning the above safety enhancements, which have been around for some time now?

Let’s think about what they are protecting us against. It can be said that FDM acts significantly in identifying trends towards wilful violation of limitations by operating crew, such as continuing an unstable approach unstable below 500ft, and is a disincentive. Trends identified with FDM can be addressed through training i.e. by improving awareness. ACAS and TAWS also act to improve situational awareness which may be degraded through distractions, abnormal situations, fatigue or lack of proficiency.

These tools are acting as a sixth-sense to identify threats we might have missed. In the case of FDM, if being used for investigation of safety reports then the threat may be hidden in the trend (e.g. a trend towards continuing unstable approached below 500ft may suggest a lack of awareness of the fact that this is the single highest contributory factor in runway excursion events). If being used to stop violation of operational limits then the threat is in the lack of awareness of why those limits exist. These tools are eyes and ears which acts to keep us safe when ours, be it our actual eyes and ears or be it our own sixth sense built up from experience of real life and/or training, do not.

Now if the accident rate has levelled out, what is the problem with these tools? They have helped to reduce it, but at some stage we will no doubt start to rely on these tools too much. It has been said that wearing seatbelts, having airbags and improving the design of cars has not, long-term, improved personal safety since it has invoked a sense of invincibility amongst drivers and lead to more risk-taking than previously.

Perhaps we just get used to the system, however safe it may be? That would mean our complacency is directly proportional to how safe we feel. That being the case, one has to ask the question… how safe do you feel? And why?