Procedures in complex systems: the airline cockpit

IEEE Trans Syst Man Cybern A Syst Hum. 1997 May;27(3):302-12. doi: 10.1109/3468.568739.


In complex human-machine systems, successful operations depend on an elaborate set of procedures which are specified by the operational management of the organization. These procedures indicate to the human operator (in this case the pilot) the manner in which operational management intends to have various tasks done. The intent is to provide guidance to the pilots and to ensure a safe, logical, efficient, and predictable (standardized) means of carrying out the objectives of the job. However, procedures can become a hodge-podge. Inconsistent or illogical procedures may lead to noncompliance by operators. Based on a field study with three major airlines, the authors propose a model for procedure development called the "Four P's": philosophy, policies, procedures, and practices. Using this model as a framework, the authors discuss the intricate issue of designing flight-deck procedures, and propose a conceptual approach for designing any set of procedures. The various factors, both external and internal to the cockpit, that must be considered for procedure design are presented. In particular, the paper addresses the development of procedures for automated cockpits--a decade-long, and highly controversial issue in commercial aviation. Although this paper is based on airline operations, we assume that the principles discussed here are also applicable to other high-risk supervisory control systems, such as space flight, manufacturing process control, nuclear power production, and military operations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Aviation / prevention & control
  • Aerospace Medicine
  • Automation*
  • Aviation / methods
  • Aviation / organization & administration
  • Aviation / standards*
  • Decision Making
  • Ergonomics*
  • Humans
  • Man-Machine Systems*
  • Models, Organizational
  • Policy Making*
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Workload