Pilot Workload

Pilot Workload


Pilots have many tasks to perform; these are normally shared between the pilot flying (PF) and the pilot not flying (PNF). Flight crew workload varies, even during routine flights, from low to high and will rise in the event of abnormal weather conditions or aircraft malfunctions. During high workload, flight crew are especially vulnerable to error if their strategies for effective multi tasking break down. This is the aspect of workload considered here. However, during periods of low workload in the cruise, a different sort of error vulnerability may arise which stems from the low Level of Arousal which typifies this flight phase and sometimes from Complacency as well.

Periods of high workload



Typical Scenarios

  • The departure or arrival runway is changed during a high-workload period and the flight crew have insufficient time to re-brief for the procedures. As a consequence, the flight:
    • Does not follow the correct SID for the changed runway; or,
    • Does not execute a subsquent go-around as precribed;
  • The flight crew misses or incorrectly interprets a message from ATC, as a result of which the flight:
    • Taxis to wrong runway or uses the wrong route, possibly entering an active runway without clearance;
    • Follows the wrong departure clearance after take-off or climbs above a limiting altitude/flight level;
    • Commences approach without clearance;
    • An approach is continued to a landing when a landing clearance has not been given.
  • The flight crew are interrupted in the course of carrying out a flight-deck drill and omit a vital action or check.

Contributory Factors

  • Multiple frequency changes are often given during high workload periods following takeoff and during the SID. This can cause confusion and distraction from important monitoring tasks.
  • Severe weather conditions or aircraft malfunction can aggravate high work-load situations.



  • Commence preparation for high workload periods as soon as possible;
  • Attempt to anticipate possible changes in clearance;
  • Ensure that both pilots listen to critical messages.


  • Give clearances, including re-clearances, in good time, if possible anticipating periods of high pilot workload;
  • Where possible, avoid late changes to a clearance especially where the change necessitates lengthy re-briefing by pilots (e.g. change of take-off runway, change of standard instrument departure (SID), change of landing runway).

Pilots and ATCOs:


Related Articles

Further Reading





SKYbrary Partners:

Safety knowledge contributed by: