Trust refers to a person’s, cadre’s, or organisation’s, level of confidence and belief in the reliability, truth and ability of people, equipment, or circumstances (to behave and perform in the manner expected or demanded).

In relation to all spheres of aviation, we can define two separate strands of Trust.

  • Trust in the reliability of systems, equipment, organisations, other people etc. to do their job correctly and effectively. In this sense Trust is a facilitating necessity to ensure operational goals are achieved safely.
  • Trust in other people and organisations to do what they said they would do, and sometimes to not do what they said they wouldn’t do!. This element can be described as a facilitating necessity to ensure a workplace culture is safe and effective.

So, Trust is a necessary precondition for the achievement of operational goals and the creation and maintenance of an effective organisational culture.


The whole aviation operational system relies on trust. It goes without saying that without trusting passengers, there would be no commercial business. Passenger trust, of course, is built on evidence; evidence that aviation is the safest form of transport, and that while accidents do happen, they are now rare events. Their trust is therefore “appropriate”, or “realistic”. Passengers trust professionals, i.e. (some) governments, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers etc. to do their jobs professionally and reliably. They have no further need to understand how they can be safely transported from A to B. These same professionals do need to know how passengers can be safely transported, however, they are mostly totally reliant on the same things as the passengers i.e. organisations, systems, equipment, other people etc.

It is important that such “professional trust” is not blind. Professionals too need to have an appropriate level of trust. Overtrust in the unreliable can clearly lead to increased risk and unexpected failure; whilst Undertrust in the reliable can lead to an unnecessary workload and subsequent consequences[1].

Appropriate levels of trust in aviation systems.

Trust and Operational Goals

The following list is just a small example of “things” that pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers etc. need to trust:

  • Aeronautical information (e.g. charts, AIP, approach charts, navigation databases etc.)
  • Various software and related systems
  • Materials (e.g. engine fan blades, brake linings, fire suppressants etc.)
  • International and National Regulations
  • Regulatory and safety oversight
  • Company procedures
  • Technical equipment (radars, human machine interfaces, aircraft hydraulic actuators etc.)
  • Air traffic controllers providing the correct instructions
  • Pilots following instructions correctly
  • Ground and space-based navigation systems; also communication and surveillance systems (Communication, Navigation and Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM))
  • Instrument Landing Systems
  • Fellow Crew and Team members
  • The adequacy of the training they have previously received
  • etc.

The list is long, and most elements are intertwined with many others. In order for each element to deserve an increased level of trust from the professionals who use and rely on them, certain characteristics are desirable, such as:

Trust and Workplace Culture

Getting others to trust you is one of the key foundation stones of leadership and effective team participation[2]. In aviation this leadership starts with the national aviation authorities and filters down to fellow team-members. Within an organisation, the senior management, cannot build a safe and effective workplace culture without first building and maintaining trust between themselves and their employees. Rules and Regulations spell out the requirements for senior managers to take responsibility and be accountable for under-performance; however, mere compliance alone does not build trust. Trust is a “two-way-street”[3]. In this sense, workers need to be provided with adequate and appropriate resources (i.e. that they can trust), and they need to know that they can rely on their managers (and the Company) to support them and maintain confidences.

It may be very easy to detect an organisation where little trust exists between managers and workers, through its performance. However, there are also positive markers which can be observed. Trust is made visible by open and honest communication between people in the organisation at all levels, where responsibilities are taken up, errors are admitted, feedback is sought and received well, and, assertiveness is encouraged and seen as positive. To sum all this up, a Culture of Trust exists when all personal interactions are unguarded.

Safety & Just Culture

One of the first goals to consider when improving organisational and operational safety is to improve the quantity and quality of occurrence reporting. In particular, self-reporting of personal errors (slips, lapses and mistakes) and also deficiencies in the organisation and resources; i.e. Human and Organisational Factors. What often prevents workers from reporting such occurrences and deficiencies is the perception (real or otherwise) that:

  • no one will listen and nothing will change, i.e. it’s a waste of time
  • if things do change they may be “drastic” and no one will thank the reporter; in fact no feedback will be provided
  • relationships with managers and colleagues will be harmed and the reporter will be a marked person
  • the reporter will be punished i.e. given less responsibility and pay, or even fired.

Building and maintaining trust is essential to break-down these perceptions, and this is achieved through demonstration that self-reporting and highlighting organisation deficiencies does not lead to negative consequences. In a trusting organisation, reporting is encouraged, supported, provided for and rewarded; furthermore, feedback is provided, changes are explained and workers are involved in the analysis of reports.

To assist organisations achieve such unguarded interaction between management and staff, regulations require the establishment of a Just Culture[4].

Trust in Automation and Technology

Trust is a concept that has been recognised to be critical for the acceptance and adoption of new technologies. However, it is not unusual. In the 21st Century most parts of our lives involve trusting our lives, finances, even relationships to technology. In aviation, trust in technology has been ubiquitous for many years, e.g. ILSAutopilot and Autoland. Driverless trains are increasingly common in the world’s airports and cities; but perhaps, the pilotless passenger plane is a step too far at this time (2013).

It is only natural that when new technologies are introduced, a degree of mistrust is guaranteed, and one could argue – essential - depending on the associated risk, and the degree of human-technology interface. It can be argued that a pilot is always in a position to “disconnect” the autopilot and intervene; however, as technology becomes increasingly complex and integrated, timely intervention requires appropriate levels of situational awareness - for example the loss of AF447 in the South Atlantic in 2009[5].

Pilot trust in future Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems needs to be cultivated, because they have much less “control” and “input”; and ATM is one area of aviation that is increasingly becoming more automated. This, too, raises questions for the trust of air traffic controllers in increasing numbers of automated tools intended to increase situational awareness, reduce workload and provide early warning of conflict (if not avoidance of conflict). Automated systems may even relieve some controllers of those tasks that are associated with the identity of “being an air traffic controller” i.e. talking to pilots. Naturally humans do not trust anything that appears to threaten their job, or threaten to change their job for the worse. References for further reading on this specific subject of trust in future ATM systems are given below.

Building trust in new technology, organisations and systems takes time and follows its own process, but the following steps can be considered as useful, if not essential, in building this trust:

  • high quality design standards
  • high quality manufacturing standards
  • strictly regulated maintenance support (these first three points may be enhanced through an oversight, approval, licensing and certification programme)
  • thorough trial and simulation programmes
  • transition to operations programme with parallel systems – old and new
  • performance monitoring and feedback
  • availability of back-up procedures and fail-safe systems.

Related Articles

Further Reading



  1. ^ Green, R, G., et al. 1996. Human Factors for Pilots. 2nd Ed. Aldershot, UK. Ashgate.
  2. ^ Gostick, A., & Elton, C., 2007. The Carrot Principle: how the best managers use recognition to engage their people, retain talent, and accelerate performance. New York. Free Press.
  3. ^ Loeb, M. & Kindel, S., 1999. Leadership for Dummies. New Jersey, USA. Wiley Publishing, Inc.
  4. ^ SKYbrary: Building a Just Culture
  5. ^ SKYbrary: Accident Summary of AF447, Airbus A330-200, South Atlantic, 2009

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