It's a Matter of Communication

April 20, 2018
Accidents can occur because pilots and mechanics don't effectively communicate

“It is the team, not the aircraft or the individual pilot, that is at the root of most accidents and incidents.” *

Despite this quote now being some 25 years old, the question might still be asked how well we, as an industry, are providing the whole ‘team’ with the skills necessary to operate efficiently together in the dynamic, fast-paced world that is aviation. We might also ask who exactly we are including in the team. Pilots and flight attendants have traditionally reaped the benefits of learning how to effectively communicate together but how many others who interact with the flight crew on a daily basis miss out? In many cases, aircraft mechanics are a prime example of such an oversight.

Communication Across Professional Boundaries

While communication is a key component of their work, it is interesting to note that current maintenance human factors training tends to focus on communication between maintenance personnel. This is reasonable given the negative repercussions which can result from poor coordination at shift handover and it is, therefore, understandable that the majority of communication training tends to focus exclusively within the maintenance organisation itself. The relative infancy of maintenance human factors programmes, compared to those developed for flight crew, also means that less consideration has been given to the unique work environments between, say, the hangar and line maintenance, leading to a lack of tailored training for the different maintenance specialties.

However, those mechanics required to interact with pilots as part of their work are essentially communicating across a professional boundary. As demonstrated by several well-known accidents where cabin crew have experienced difficulty communicating with pilots, the ability for people to interact effectively with those of different professions can present challenges. This is well known within the medical arena also where surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses can struggle with communication in the operating theatre. Regarding the pilot-maintenance interface, this concept has been recognised, with the UK Civil Aviation Authority** stating: “Most line [aircraft maintenance technicians] appear to have a good understanding of how human factors affect them in their everyday work. Where they have less understanding is with regard to what the pilot is thinking. The reverse is also true; pilots currently appear to have a poor understanding of the [maintainer’s] perspective.”

Differing Perceptions

Pilot write-up in aircraft logbook: Left inside main tyre almost needs replacing

Mechanic’s response: Left inside main tyre almost replaced

While there are many jokes about communication between pilots and aircraft mechanics, the way in which the two parties interact is not always so humorous. In 2015, for example, a physical altercation took place on an Air India flight deck between the aircraft’s captain and a maintenance technician over whether a defect had been rectified correctly***. However, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence that communication between pilots and mechanics is not always particularly effective, research to identify why this might be the case has, to date, been limited.

Given that the logbook is the primary means by which they interface, most formal studies have focused on this medium and the frustrations pilots and mechanics experience using written communication. Data out of Australia and the United States, for example, has previously identified that both pilots and mechanics experience very different perceptions of each other’s ability to communicate appropriately. A common finding with regard to the logbook is that each profession perceives that the other has poor write-ups/sign-offs in relation to the amount and detail of information which is provided about defects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, each group thinks their own logbook communication is satisfactory and fit for the purpose, illustrating a disparity between the actual information needs of pilots and mechanics.

Beyond the Logbook

But are communication problems between pilots and mechanics driven by deeper issues? In more recent research****, findings from a series of focus groups held at an Australasian airline highlight some of the specific challenges faced by pilots and mechanics when they attempt to communicate. Along with pilots, mechanics who worked in the line maintenance environment were invited to discuss the factors they identified as causing difficulties across the flight-maintenance interface. Both professions raised similar concerns, indicating that despite having perceived differences, the issues they faced were actually common to both employee groups.

Communication difficulties were seen to stem from organisational factors such as the tempo of airline operations, lack of a face-to-face hand over at the aircraft (i.e., solely relying on the logbook) and an absence of any opportunity to engage in joint-communication training or classroom activities. Interestingly, this lack of physical contact between the two groups appears to have broader implications than just the immediate difficulties associated with use of the logbook. Less face-to-face interaction between the two groups also leads to an increase in perceived differences with respect to each profession’s underlying motives when dispatching an aircraft. This is despite the fact that both pilots and mechanics share an overarching goal of flight safety. Left unchecked, such misperceptions can affect fundamental aspects of the pilot-mechanic relationship, including trust in each other.

Verbal Communication Difficulties

In addition to the misperceptions which can influence their interactions, the times where pilots and mechanics do speak with each other in person can also become problematic. Mechanics, for example, raised concerns that despite feeling confident in their mechanical ability, they sometimes found it difficult to verbalise technical information in a way that would appear sound to a pilot, particularly in situations where they were outnumbered on the flight deck.

Conversely, some pilots were critical of the way mechanics would sometimes speak to them in an undermining fashion, discouraging them from asking what might be considered "silly" questions or reporting any minor "misdemeanours". One pilot raised the point that, after years spent together in the classroom practicing effective communication techniques, the relationship with flight attendants was now such that there was always encouragement to report any concerns to the pilots and those working in the cabin always appeared confident to do so.

So, What of It?

The implications of poor communication between pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians can be far-reaching. Traditionally, a problematic interface between the two groups – say a poorly worded log write-up from a pilot – was assumed to simply result in difficulties for the mechanic in terms of successful defect rectification. However, a recent study**** of over 1,000 reports submitted to the NASA-administered ASRS database, illustrates the broader way in which poor communication can manifest. The reports (the majority which were submitted by U.S. airline pilots operating under rule part 121) outlined a range of issues including disagreements with mechanics over defect rectifications, appropriateness of deferrals, and confusion with the Minimum Equipment List (MEL). The results of such communication difficulties appear to be associated with two types of outcome – operational and safety-related.

Operational outcomes – which include flight cancellations, delays, returns to the gate, and pilots refusing to accept an aircraft – were associated with almost half of the reports in the data set. Needless to say, such disruptions to the schedule are obviously undesirable for an airline, both from an economic and customer satisfaction point of view. Problematic interactions between pilots and mechanics were also associated with adverse safety events. While some of these safety-related outcomes had a direct influence on the actual flight (e.g., operating on an incorrect MEL, incorrect maintenance being conducted, or having a maintenance-related event on the subsequent sector) others were seen to negatively impact on the pilot-maintainer relationship itself. For example, one-third of all the reports detailing a difficult communication encounter included feelings on the part of the submitter that the trust between the pilot and mechanic had been jeopardised as a result of the event. Almost one-fifth of reports describing disagreements between pilots and mechanics subsequently escalated into what could be described as "heated" arguments – not an ideal situation for either party to be faced with during their workday.

Where to From Here?

With regard to investment in the pilot-maintainer relationship, resource is certainly a genuine issue, at least from a practical point of view. Removing personnel from the workplace in order to undertake communication training is undoubtedly expensive and developing specialised training programmes also requires a considerable investment, as well as tremendous commitment from management. According to the UK human factors guidance (CAP 737), while airline CEOs and senior managers appear to understand the value of human factors and crew resource management education, there appears to be little inclination to conduct additional training beyond what is required by regulations. This is mainly due to the cost which is associated, an issue which is only compounded by the extensive use of contract employees. Thus, short of mandating joint crew resource management training for pilots and mechanics, the situation remains challenging.

The answer to this problem may well lie in how we, as an industry, "sell" communication training. Conceivably, this may require an approach which elects to steer away from marketing such programmes as purely safety-related. Traditionally, safety has primarily been the objective of aviation human factors research, yet, in mainstream occupational psychology, for example, improving business efficiency is a common focus for research teams. Human factors expert Don Harris argues that huge advancements could be made for airlines in terms of improving financial performance but only if our human factors focus shifts toward a wider, socio-technical perspective: “There needs to be greater integration between the various subdisciplines – selection, training, equipment design, and organisational pressures do not exist in isolation. They combine to contribute to accidents so they should be tackled in an integrated manner.”

With aviation accidents now typically characterised by errors which have crossed many organisational boundaries, investment in a larger section of our workforce may well prove profitable in the long run. Consideration as to how we can be more inclusive with our communication training programmes could certainly be a good start.

Additional Resources

*Hackman, R. J. (1993). Teams, Leaders and Organisations: New Directions for Crew-orientated Flight Training. In E. Wiener, B. Kanki & Helmreich, R. (eds) Cockpit Resource Management. San Diego, CA: Academic Press

**Civil Aviation Authority (UK). (2014). CAP 737. Flight-crew Human Factors Handbook. Sussex, UK: Civil Aviation Safety Regulation Group

*** published Jan. 18, 2015. Retrieved Dec. 1, 2015 from:

****Fisher, T. J. (2016) Cleared to Disconnect?: a study of the interaction between airline pilots and line maintenance engineers: a thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Aviation at Massey University, Manawatũ, New Zealand

About the Author

Tahlia Fisher | Aviation Safety Specialist

Tahlia Fisher currently works as an aviation safety specialist in New Zealand. Prior to this, Fisher was a commercial multi-engine instrument rated flight instructor. She left flying to pursue a career in flight safety and completed her air accident investigation qualifications at the University of Southern California and the National Transport Safety Board. Fisher has been an accredited air accident investigator with IFALPA and is a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators. She has recently completed her Ph.D. studying communication between airline pilots and line maintenance personnel.