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The human factor has been for several decades the weakest link in the security of aviation, from the 1950s incidents and accident statistics related to human factors are almost unchanged, accounting for 70-80% of all aviation incidents.
One year on: How to prevent repeat of “German wings” disaster?
© AFP/Scanpix

That fact is all the more surprising given the huge and continual investment of funds by international aviation authorities in preventing human related aviation incidents over that period.

The human factor (HF) includes not only the pilots (as commonly understood) but air traffic controllers and technicians and support staff (including airline administrators), and passengers.

Every single one of these human factors in aviation have an impact on safety, and errors by any of them can lead to negative consequences, from minor incidents to horrible disasters like “Germanwings”.

This raises a natural question: Why has aviation security not improved in the field of HF, even though both public and private institutions are constantly working and investing to make flying safer?

With the statistics almost unchanged over 70 years, we need to take a number of steps to improve safety. To maximize HF reliability we can improve safety radically by changing two factors:

l. Improve selection of aviators and existing staff selection (in both a physical and psychological sense)

2. Introduce continuous monitoring of the human factor (using all possible means to register efficiency/factors influencing health)

How to do this?

Already aviation specialist candidates and employees are now experiencing more psycho-physiological selection and screening procedures, but it is clearly not enough to increase the reliability of the HF element.

Why? Because the current candidate/employee psycho-physiological selection procedure does quite well in assessing the current condition of an individual, but is unable to estimate the future potential of a change in that.

Here it is useful to recall a key tenet of the philosophical sciences: "The past is not a direct precondition for the future." In simple words, if a candidate is in a good psychophysiological state now, they may not necessarily be reliable or healthy tomorrow, next week or next month.

Therefore, for all existing psycho-physiological selection procedures we have to exploit recent scientific advances and also investigate the whole human genome. Yes, genome investigation now is expensive, but it is expected by 2020 that the cost will have dropped to as little as €20 per analysis.

Genome study reveal a person's individual risk factors: their predisposition to specific psycho-physiological disorders such as schizophrenia, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and many others that would make a candidate or employee unsuitable for certain aviation roles (pilot, air traffic controller).

Because a genetic disorder is like a ticking bomb, there will always be a first time when the disorder will manifest itself. The study of the genome holds out the possibility we will be able to see if a candidate is suitable for a critical profession. We will not only increase the reliability and safety of the human factor when it comes to flight, but also reduce the huge amount spent on staff training and professional development for unsuitable candidates.

However, an increase in flight safety cannot happen without aviators being continuously monitored. Many of the factors undermining safety now go unnoticed for personal or corporate reasons such as profitability, or simple neglect.

Some examples

The average person needs about 7-8 hours of sleep to function fully during the day. If a pilot sleeps just five hours, he misses one or two phases of REM sleep during which the brain structures the information to prepare for the next day’s cognitive processes. The consequences can be serious: slow and inadequate information processing, a process critical to pilots and even attention deficit disorder.

If an aviator has a cold but still comes to work. His body temperature rises to 37.5 degrees as a result of the cold but the consequences are that even a 1 degree higher than normal body temperature doubles the likelihood of errors because it profoundly impacts short-term memory.

A third example is that if a pilot had a birthday and consumed a large quantity of alcohol. The consequence is that alcohol not only disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters but negatively impacts the vestibular senses (inner ear and brain areas affecting balance, vision and hearing) for 3-4 days after.

There are many other examples but one thing is clear, if we want to do flights safer, we must monitor the psycho-physiological condition of pilots continuously.

How to do it?

Without seeking to violate privacy norms, implanting chips is probably the only possible way to do this: they would analyse all the necessary parameters such as body temperature, blood components composition, pulse, pressure, and changes in brain activity.

By collecting data at certain intervals and transmitting it (for example) to a smartphone, which over mobile networks could be transmitted to the central computer. A specialised computer program would process the data and any deviations from the norm in persons who are responsible for the safety would be highlighted.

Continuous monitoring is not necessarily as bad as it sounds and would be an opportunity to work with aviation staff who are below par or suffering from a condition

While these suggestions may sound shocking to some, mankind has been repeatedly faced with overcoming these kind of challenges. In this case we face many legal, moral and other dilemmas that we will have to resolve to prevent a future “Germanwings” disaster.

Only by making big compromises can we enhance the human element factor and increase flight safety. In my view, the lives of hundreds and thousands of airline passengers are more important than our norms of morality.

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