Airline captains should do more supervising and less flying, according to new aviation research

It may be better for airline captains to act more like the captains of ship. A new scientific review article published in Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors suggests flying is safer when the captain supervises the flight crew rather than taking active control of the aircraft.

“My interest stems from my 11 years of experience as an airline pilot, having been both a captain and first officer,” said study author Stuart D. H. Beveridge of the University of New South Wales.

“During initial training at my very first airline position, an instructor explained to me the philosophy of an airliner captain ideally being in the position of Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise: the strategic overseer and decision-maker of the operation that delegates tasks to the crew.”

“That piece of advice I received wasn’t the only time I encountered a discussion along these lines. It has actually been informally proposed by experienced captains and industry practitioners, touched on by a number of academic researchers, appears to be almost commonplace in military aviation, and even made its way into practice in some isolated cases decades ago but has since fallen by the wayside for reasons that are unclear.”

“In spite of this undercurrent of wisdom, and the analogies in other complex domains such as a ship’s bridge, a battlefield, or a control center, the status quo in airline operations does not support and in some cases even actively opposes this being put into action by the flight crew.”

“In many cases the captain is obliged to be the pilot flying (consequently delegating the supervisory monitoring task to the first officer), or at the very least strongly feels that this is the safest course of action. The potential that the use of this philosophy (or lack thereof) has very real and significant implications for aviation safety made me want to formally investigate exactly what evidence supported it, so that research may guide any necessary policy and/or cultural changes in the industry.”

For their study, the researchers reviewed reports about crew role assignment from conferences, peer-reviewed studies, technical documents, and dissertations. Beveridge and his colleagues found evidence that flight crews had better monitoring, situational awareness, and decision-making when the captain was not assigned to flying duties.

In other words, it appears it is better for captains to monitor the flight management and aircraft control actions of first officers, rather than the other way around.

For example, the researchers found that a lack of assertiveness or status concerns could prevent a first officer from reporting important information to a captain who was acting as the flying pilot. This factor was cited in a number of accident/incident studies.

“During my research I found that it wasn’t only the commercial airline industry that at least occasionally put a leader or supervisor in an engrossing control task with possible adverse effects on safety; doctors at an operating table and first responders such as police and firefighters were other such examples,” Beveridge told PsyPost.

“Historical and cultural paradigms may be putting these professionals in these positions, but there may be a deeper psychological drivers that equate managing a task to doing it yourself. Classical management and leadership principles teach us to delegate subordinate tasks to keep the big picture in mind, yet in these high risk domains we do the opposite; this may need a re-think.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats and limitations.

“A large portion of the evidence was from accident and incident data, so are only really looking at the small segment of airline operations where things go wrong, rather than when things go right,” Beveridge explained.

“The few studies that observed normal operations had some interesting implications for the research, so I believe more of this kind of data could really guide us as to how and when a captain should be stepping back and delegating the flying task to the first officer. It’s very likely that this will not be a binary answer with a degree of judgement required, so it is really important to find when this is most helpful so that any guidance and policy can have the best effect in practice,” he told PsyPost.

“Also the research was time-limited, so the scope was very specific to airline operations and demonstrable safety outcomes. The small number of studies found likely shared a common heritage of research, and it is apparent that there are more general historical, cultural, and psychological factors that are relevant and could be examined in a broader scope review.”

Some of the reasons airlines keep first officers away from flying don’t make much sense, he added.

“One of the more common criticisms of the captain delegating the flying I have heard have been: ‘In our airline we have really inexperienced first officers, we can’t be giving them the controls.’ This just raises two more concerning questions: why do we have a pilot in the flight deck that by admission is not able to do the most basic function of the job which is flight path management?” Beveridge said.

“Furthermore, why are these inexperienced first officers therefore considered more capable at supervising the other pilot to do that same task, arguably requiring even more skilled judgement? Airlines who claim this position need to reconsider what they deem as essential competencies of a first officer and invest in better training for them so that flying the aircraft is not their weakness.”

The study, “Command and control: The influence of flight crew role assignment on flight safety in air transport operations“, was authored by Stuart D. H. Beveridge, Simon T. Henderson, Wayne L. Martin, and Joleah B. Lamb.