Australian Human Factors Study Demonstrates That More Cockpit Time Does Not Mean Better Safety Performance

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Research: Logbook Hours Don’t Always Make Safer Pilots

041013Matthew Thomas and Melanie Todd completed a study in 2012 to examine the relationship between a pilot’s flight hours and their performance.  In their report “Flight Hours and Flight Crew Performance in Commercial Aviation” they concluded that, despite on-going debate that low-hour First Officers are not as capable as their more experienced colleagues, they found no evidence of this in their study.

Thomas and Todd measured flight crew performance during 287 sectors of normal flight operations against a set of technical and nontechnical measurements. Flight crews were categorized into low and high experience groups according to industry accepted thresholds.

There were no statistically significant differences between experienced groups for First Officers and Captains against the set of technical measures. There were some minor differences regarding non technical measures.

Recent legislative mandates have codified the premise that increased commercial flight hours equate to a higher level of safety (§ 217(c) (1) of Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010). There appears to be some conflict between the legislative determination and the Thomas and Todd findings.

Determining the ability to safely fly a commercial aircraft by a regulator may not be easily defined. Age or experience may not be absolute correlaters with enhanced safety performance. There may be other variables which impact cockpit performance; very different talents may be demanded under the myriad of events that can happen. Experience, however, may be a sufficiently objective test to serve as a surrogate assessment for cockpit competence. The debate then becomes how much time in the seat determines whether someone can/should perform those duties.

Designing or implementing a completely skill-based examination may not be possible. There are current methods to determine whether a pilot is competent to perform necessary skills. The abilities needed to be ascertained beyond the essentials, such as loss of control, unexpected severe weather, equipment malfunctions plus a myriad of other catastrophic events may not be the elements for any single test or battery of tests. A skills-based review may be able to incorporate all of the known threats but cannot necessarily include all the unpredictable variables.

Under such circumstances, the regulatory standard cannot be a perfect predictor of future safety performance. The criteria selected must be reasonable, may be somewhat arbitrary and cannot be capricious. Selecting a dramatically increased number of flight hours without some hard statistical evidence (that increased cockpit time translates to greater safety performance) seems to be without substantiation.

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