Is Human Factors in aviation at a crossroads?

Now seems like a good time to look beyond the dark prism of the current COVID-induced crisis in aviation to consider a future beyond the mire.

The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) recently published a White Paper called “The Human Dimension in Tomorrow’s Aviation System”. It’s made up of a series of accessible short articles written by Human Factors experts from across aviation and related fields, and provides some fascinating insights into how the aviation sector might develop and change through the 2020s and beyond. It’s also available to listen to as a webinar.

Most of these were penned before the seismic impact of COVID19 knocked the industry sideways. And despite acknowledging current difficulties as, “perhaps the biggest challenge in the history of aviation,” the long term view of this paper envisages a gradual return to pre-pandemic levels of demand and progress.  It is entirely possible that the fallout from whatever social, economic, and commercial changes the pandemic might provoke will actually accelerate many of the structural, technological, and systemic developments that these articles predict.

The White Paper explores a really broad range of themes, but two of its key arguments caught my attention:

The first is the idea that aviation is currently on an ‘uncharted and unprecedented journey’ set to change dramatically during the next two to three decades. This change is already happening all around us. What marks this change out from what has gone before is that up until recently change within aviation has been driven from within the industry itself, with technological and other innovations coming from aircraft manufacturers and operators. As a consequence, the industry set its own rhythm and enjoyed a measured pace of change. This is no longer the case, and many of the catalysts for change in the industry are now coming from outside the world of traditional aviation giants, driven by new business entrants with independently produced innovations. This is rapidly accelerating the pace of change and leaving the regulators struggling to keep up.

The second idea is that the role of Human Factors in aviation is also at a crossroads. It too must accelerate its development and capability to support the coming changes in aviation. The authors argue that the traditional approach to Human Factors has been a piecemeal focus on responding to single issue questions in safety or ergonomics, often in response to manufacturer demand or safety reviews. Acknowledging that aviation is now developing into becoming a ‘system of systems’ requires a deeper partnership, where the human and the technology are considered hand in hand, as interdependent. HF input will have to broaden from the micro to the macro, to itself become a more encompassing ‘systems’ approach. And it will need to be integrated strategically to allow it to meet the unseen and unplanned challenges that arise from all the technological, social, and regulatory change that we are now experiencing.

Aviation is on an uncharted an unprecedented journey.

Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors

The CIEHF concludes that “in both civil and military aviation there is a need for a more concerted effort to harness human factors … so that it can support the raft of innovations and their interactions – intended and otherwise – that will become aviation’s ‘new normal’ in this decade.”

If you’re interested in Human Factors in aviation, there’s something for everyone in this paper. It’s food for thought and I recommend at least dipping in to it.

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