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Plan Continuation Bias
(Plan) Continuation Bias is the unconscious cognitive bias to continue with the original plan in spite of changing conditions.
The following explanation of continuation bias is derived from a Transport Safety Board of Canada accident report.
To make decisions effectively, a pilot or controller needs an accurate understanding of the situation and an appreciation of the implications of the situation, then to formulate a plan and contingencies, and to implement the best course of action. Equally important is the ability to recognize changes in the situation and to reinitiate the decision-making process to ensure that changes are accounted for and plans modified accordingly. If the potential implications of the situation are not adequately considered during the decision-making process, there is an increased risk that the decision and its associated action will result in an adverse outcome that leads to an undesired aircraft state.
A number of different factors can adversely impact a pilot's decision-making process. For example, increased workload can adversely impact a pilot's ability to perceive and evaluate cues from the environment and may result in attentional narrowing. In many cases, this attentional narrowing can lead to Confirmation Bias, which causes people to seek out cues that support the desired course of action, to the possible exclusion of critical cues that may support an alternate, less desirable hypothesis. The danger this presents is that potentially serious outcomes may not be given the appropriate level of consideration when attempting to determine the best possible course of action.
One specific form of confirmation bias is (plan) continuation bias, or plan continuation error. Once a plan is made and committed to, it becomes increasingly difficult for stimuli or conditions in the environment to be recognized as necessitating a change to the plan. Often, as workload increases, the stimuli or conditions will appear obvious to people external to the situation; however, it can be very difficult for a pilot caught up in the plan to recognize the saliency of the cues and the need to alter the plan.
When continuation bias interferes with the pilot's ability to detect important cues, or if the pilot fails to recognize the implications of those cues, breakdowns in situational awareness (SA) occur. These breakdowns in SA can result in non-optimal decisions being made, which could compromise safety.
In a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Ames Research Center review of 37 accidents investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, it was determined that almost 75% of the tactical decision errors involved in the 37 accidents were related to decisions to continue on the original plan of action despite the presence of cues suggesting an alternative course of action. Dekker (2006) suggests that continuation bias occurs when the cues used to formulate the initial plan are considered to be very strong. For example, if the plan seems like a great plan, based on the information available at the time, subsequent cues that indicate otherwise may not be viewed in an equal light, in terms of decision making.
Therefore, it is important to realize that continuation bias can occur, and it is important for pilots to remain cognizant of the risks of not carefully analyzing changes in the situation, and considering the implications of those changes, to determine whether or not a more appropriate revised course of action is appropriate. As workload increases, particularly in a single-pilot scenario, less and less mental capacity is available to process these changes, and to consider the potential impact that they may have on the original plan.
Accidents and Incidents
SKYbrary includes the following reports relating to events where continuation bias was considered to be a factor:
- B732, vicinity Abuja Nigeria, 2006 (On 29 October 2006, an ADC Airlines’ Boeing 737-200 encountered wind shear almost immediately taking off from Abuja into adverse weather associated with a very rapidly developing convective storm. Unseen from the apron or ATC TWR it stalled, crashed and burned after just over one minute airborne killing 96 of the 105 occupants. The Investigation concluded that loss of control during the wind shear encounter was not inevitable but was a consequence of inappropriate crew response. Concerns about the quality of crew training and competency validation were also raised.)
- A320, vicinity Jaipur India, 2016 (On 27 February 2016, an Airbus A320 making an into-sun visual approach to Jaipur in hazy conditions lined up on a road parallel to the intended landing runway and continued descent until an EGPWS ‘TOO LOW TERRAIN’ Alert occurred at 200 feet agl upon which a go-around was initiated. The Investigation found that although the First Officer had gained visual reference with both road and runway at 500 feet agl, the Captain had seen only the road and continued asking the First Officer to continue descent towards it despite the First Officer’s attempts to alert him to his error.)
- A321, Incheon South Korea, 2013 (On 16 April 2013, an A321 sustained significant damage during a tail strike during a bounced landing which followed loss of airspeed and an increase in sink rate shortly before touchdown after an otherwise stabilised approach. The Investigation attributed the tail strike to a failure to follow the recommended bounced landing response and noted the inadequate training provided by Asiana for bounced landing recovery.)
- A306, vicinity Birmingham AL USA, 2013 (On 14 August 2013, a UPS Airbus A300-600 crashed short of the runway at Birmingham Alabama on a night IMC non-precision approach after the crew failed to go around at 1000ft aal when unstabilised and then continued descent below MDA until terrain impact. The Investigation attributed the accident to the individually poor performance of both pilots, to performance deficiencies previously-exhibited in recurrent training by the Captain and to the First Officer's failure to call in fatigued and unfit to fly after mis-managing her off duty time. A Video was produced by NTSB to further highlight human factors aspects.)
- AS65, vicinity North Morecambe Platform Irish Sea UK, 2006 (On 27 December 2006, an AS365 Dauphin 2, operated by CHC Scotia, crashed into the sea adjacent to a gas platform in Morecambe Bay, UK, at night, following loss of control.)
- TSB. Air Transportation Safety Investigation Report A18P0031 Loss of Control and Collision with Terrain. 14 August 2019.
- The “Barn Door” Effect by C. West, Ph.D., NOAA - a paper about pilots’ propensity to continue approaches to land when closer to convective weather than they would wish to get while en route.