Ever since the early days of commercial aviation, flight safety has steadily improved. Considering the number of flights, accidents are now extremely rare, and 70% of them are attributable to human factors. This has led to research in psychology, cognitive science and, more recently, in neuroergonomics. Researchers have been investigating factors such as drowsiness, stress, attention, workload, communication, and cognitive biases. One that has been surprisingly overlooked is that of social relations within the cockpit.

Commercial-airline crews are made up of one or two first officers and a designated leader, the captain. While all the pilots have the necessary skills to fly the aircraft, the captain is legally responsible for the flight. They are more experienced, better paid and often significantly older than first officers. Before takeoff, the captain decides who will pilot the aircraft and who will monitor the instruments, checklists and communication. The power imbalance between the two creates a hierarchical system. Depending on the situation and the pilots’ personalities, this imbalance can sometimes compromise communication and adversely influence decision making.

Power and cognitive bias

Being in a position of power increases the risk of cognitive bias. The halo effect – i.e., the tendency to judge people on the basis of their characteristics (such as ethnicity, age, cast, religion, etc.) or past events unrelated to the situation at hand – can severely affect captains. This happened in 2011 during the approach of First Air flight 6560, when the relatively inexperienced first officer noticed that the aircraft was veering sightly off-course. The captain – who, unlike the first officer, had flown many times over the Arctic region – believed the instruments were simply adversely impacted by the proximity of the north magnetic pole. Blinded by his first officer’s relative lack of experience, the captain ignored the latter’s repeated warnings and suggestions to go around. The mistake proved fatal to the captain, the first officer and 10 passengers.

Captains can also be affected by the false-consensus bias – the tendency to believe that those around us approve of our ideas and actions to a far greater extent than is actually the case. Also, the higher a person’s position in the hierarchy, the less negative feedback he or she will openly receive from subordinates. Therefore, the greater the power imbalance between the captain and the first officer, the higher the risk of false-consensus bias in the cockpit.

First officers or passive observers?

Captains aren’t the only ones to be affected by this power imbalance. In the 1970s, a study carried out in a flight simulator showed that when the captains pretended to lose consciousness during a landing, nearly one in four first officers failed to take over the controls. Given the changes that have taken place in cockpit organisation since that time, it is unlikely that a new study would produce such worrying results. However, it demonstrates that under certain conditions first officers can feel less engaged, responsible or legitimate than the captain, and fail to react appropriately.

An overly authoritarian captain can severely exacerbate this tendency and even paralyse the first officers to the point that they become mere bystanders. This occurred during the crash of Korean Air cargo flight 8509. The captain, a domineering former military pilot, made a catastrophic error. The first officer noticed but did nothing for fear of reprisal. The aircraft hit the ground less than 60 seconds after take off, killing everyone on board.