Human Factors Update

Human Factors Update


This introductory article summarises SKYbrary’s resources for continual learning about human factors in aviation as of 2020. The subject remains a fascinating field of knowledge that influences risk management and the prevention of aircraft accidents and incidents.

Caren Wenner, manager of human factors and statistics at Sandia National Laboratories in the United States, recently said in a conference presentation: “Structurally sound aircraft plummet to Earth, ships run aground in calm seas, industrial machines run awry, and the instruments of medical science maim and kill unsuspecting patients, all because of incompatibilities between the way things are designed and the way people perceive, think, and act. (Casey, 1993)”

When humans perish or suffer serious injuries in a crash, troubling questions inevitably arise about threats, errors and circumstances that destroyed the aircraft.

How did this tragedy happen if those responsible ostensibly knew all about safety of flight? What broke down among individuals and organisations? Did failures to recognise risks inexplicably occur? How could experts lose their situational awareness? What distracted their attention from priceless lessons learned? Human factors knowledge — when properly learned, applied and respected — holds the keys to reasonable answers. At the least, “HF” concepts, principles, insights and common language help people collaborate and speak truthfully about how to mitigate risks, and in the worst case, to logically overcome catastrophes.

Twenty years ago, Curt Graeber, then chief engineer, Human Factors Engineering, at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, predicted focal points for human factors engineers. In Boeing AERO, Graeber said, “Despite rapid gains in technology, humans are ultimately responsible for ensuring the success and safety of the aviation industry. They must continue to be knowledgeable, flexible, dedicated, and efficient while exercising good judgment. … Because technology continues to evolve faster than the ability to predict how humans will interact with it, the industry can no longer depend as much on experience and intuition to guide decisions related to human performance. … By continuously studying the interface between human performance and commercial airplanes, Boeing continues to help operators apply the latest human factors knowledge for increased flight safety.”


Many definitions of human factors exist, tuned for specific audiences with the same phrases echoing among diverse industries. For example, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) website says, “The study of human factors is about understanding human behavior and performance. When applied to aviation operations, human factors knowledge is used to optimize the fit between people and the systems in which they work in order to improve safety and performance.”

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau's (ATSB’s) website and its 2006 human factors training material add, “The term human factors has its origins in aviation, and while the term was used informally in literature and British Royal Air Force accident investigation reports in the 1940s, it was not until 1957 that it was first formally used to describe the modern practice (Edwards, 1988).”

Another definition — from a California State University Long Beach program in human factors psychology — goes beyond the aviation industry: “Human factors (also known as ergonomics or human engineering) is a scientific discipline which examines human behavior and capabilities in order to find the best ways to design products, equipment and systems for maximum safe, effective, satisfying use by humans.

“Human factors faculty in our department are currently working on research including: - Basic human performance — perception (auditory and visual); - Cognition (action-selection, memory, decision making); - Workload; - Skill acquisition and knowledge engineering; - Human-computer interaction — web design, multimodal interfaces, and usability testing; and, - Aviation psychology — workload, situation awareness, and interface design for air traffic management.”

The presentation by Sandia’s Wenner said that goal of human factors in engineering design/analysis are that the result “ensures that the system is ‘adapted’ to the human, rather than forcing the human to adapt to the system; allows the human to perform in the best manner of which he/she is capable, rather than hindering performance; ensures that the human is not subjected to extreme physical or mental stress or workload; [and,] provides personal satisfaction for the user. … Humans are the most complex system component, the least understood system component and the system component most vulnerable to failure.”

Recent Evolution

EUROCONTROL and partner Flight Safety Foundation continue to encourage aviation professionals to pursue human factors knowledge throughout their careers. Just one year after EUROCONTROL launched its SKYbrary electronic repository in May 2008, the editorial team incorporated an extensive multimedia compendium of knowledge (described with hyperlinks below) called Operator’s Guide to Human Factors in Aviation (OGHFA). The project was initiated by the FSF European Advisory Committee, which includes EUROCONTROL representation.

OGHFA still offers a sound introduction to human factors, and enables comparison on SKYbrary of issues in 2009 and now. Content includes briefing notes, supporting checklists and visual training aids, as well as situational examples that present visitors with real life examples based on accidents and serious incidents. During the last five years, 18 separate human factors–related articles have augmented OGHFA (see References with hyperlinks below) on SKYbrary. Current State of Aviation Human Factors In 2014, Thomas B. Sheridan, a retired emeritus professor of engineering and applied psychology in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote that despite steady advances in human factors knowledge, unresolved conflicts between human factors experts and flight deck automation experts remain a serious cause for concern.

Sheridan said, “The pressure from the computer community is always to make automation ‘smarter’ … but much research in human factors has shown that removing the human from the decision loop can produce reduced situation awareness, complacency, over-reliance on the automation, and unbalanced workload. … The implication from much research is that some intermediate level between full automation (what is possible) and full human control is best. … It seems to me that system developers need some automation policy with clear guidelines allocating authority and responsibility.”


EUROCONTROL Flight Safety Foundation European Advisory Committee

  • OGHFA: An Introduction to the Purpose and Use of the Operator’s Guide to Human Factors in Aviation,” European Advisory Committee, Flight Safety Foundation, 2009.
  • “EUROCONTROL SKYbrary Portal: OGHFA: Description,” Operator’s Guide to Human Factors in Aviation (OGHFA), European Advisory Committee, Flight Safety Foundation, last edited 19 March 2019. This introduction portal on the SKYbrary website contains hyperlinks to “An Introduction to the Purpose and Use of the Operator’s Guide to Human Factors in Aviation,” “A Short Video Presentation on OGHFA” and the complete OGHFA compendium of articles and supporting information.

Other Sources

Related Articles

Further Reading


SKYbrary Partners:

Safety knowledge contributed by: