To Lead…or to Manage.

There is a term within the aviation industry called CRM, short for crew resource management. CRM is defined by the FAA in Aviation Circular 120-51D as the application of team management concepts in the flight deck environment. Further, successful CRM utilizes all available resources to assist flight crew members in the safe completion of a flight, to include human resources, hardware, and information.

What is interesting is the clear emphasis on managing the flight deck environment, flight deck and cabin crew, external resources (Air Traffic Control, Dispatcher), hardware (aircraft systems), and tools (flight management computer, weather radar, traffic collision avoidance system) in the operation of a flight. As a professional pilot all of these items come somewhat second nature. It is difficult to explain, but much like any other task, after many years of exposure and operational success, you end up with a good handle on many different situations and are comfortable in the job that you perform.

What I want to discuss today is the leadership aspect of CRM. Yes, Captains are managing the resources of a crew, however it is crucial that Captains are more leader than manager.

CRM was developed due to extensive human factors resource and accident investigations that revealed a highly authoritarian cockpit environment. The Captain, or Pilot in Command, of the flight is responsible for the aircraft, the crew, proper flight planning, and safe operation of the aircraft within the standards established by the company and within the regulatory guidelines established by the governing government aviation body. The First Officer (previously termed Co-Pilot), is the second in command, with the same responsibilities as the Captain, without having the specific legal obligation of signing for the aircraft. The duties are highly similar with the end goal of a succesful flight being the end desired state.

Courtesy Atlas Aviation; First Published by Air Line Pilot, 1988.


“You are the resource…and I am the Management!”

Thirty to forty years ago the cockpit environment was very much stacked in the Captain’s favor. First Officers rarely spoke up when they noticed something that did not appear correct. Additional crew members such as a Flight Engineer would also defer judgment to the First Officer or Captain, fearing that speaking up could cause a toxic cockpit environment. A number of airline accidents could have been avoided if successful crew resource management was utilized, if Captains were more so leaders than managers, and if crew members felt confident that when they voiced concerns the concerns would be received openly and respectfully. Three or four decades ago, Captains were the flight deck God, never to be challenged. Or so that was the mental viewpoint of the additional flight crew members.

CRM began in the late 1980s with the goal to change the cockpit environment. To improve crew communication, decision-making, and problem solving from an authoritative task of the Captain to a collaborative task of the whole crew.

While contemporary leaders in the business environment may have a long-term vision that they are attempting reach, within the airline crew environment Captains must also be leaders and a successful manager. Captains must foster a positive internal communication environment that encourages crew members to speak up when a problem is noticed or when a potential solution is not the best solution possible. Captains also must provide encouragement to crew members after the completion of a difficult task, especially for cabin crew members. Cabin crews are a vital resource. Unfortunately, they can face a barrage of customer complaints or attitudes that can destroy their desire to be a positive influence. CRM allows the interpersonal relationship that has developed in working as a crew to allow for a strong team environment where all members are working towards the same desired end state. Captains and First Officers must be supportive of their cabin crew members and assist in solving cabin issues when needed.

Even in today’s CRM environment, Captain’s are still the final authority figure for the flight. However, due to improved crew member education, a positive workplace environment is established with the implementation and continued evolution of CRM. Accidents have been avoided due to the increase in internal communication between crew members. A significant paradigm shift has occurred within the cockpits of airline aircraft.

Courtesy of NASA; Crew Resource Management Improves Decision Making.

Today Cockpit crews work together to solve problems. Very rarely does the Captain direct, or command, a single action. Rather, much as the cartoon above suggests, the Captain may inquire about a potential plan or action. A discussion may occur between crew members that evaluates all available resources to determine, in both minds, the correct action to take.

Courtesy of In Delta Learning; Lessons from the Flight Deck, 2005-2013.

In recent years Crew Resource Management has taken an interesting turn. Other industries have seen the value of CRM techniques and are implementing them where possible. These industries include healthcare and breaking down the barriers of communication between nurses and doctors, nuclear power and mining, successfully breaking down the authoritarian role of facility managers and improving safety resources and being receptive to safety concerns from team members.

All in all, CRM strives to bring improved internal communication to reduce errors and increase safety. The aviation industry has benefited greatly from the change in cockpit environment over the past two and a half decades. Continued research in human factors may one day significantly alter the practice of CRM with a more focused approach on specific trouble spots. However, crews will likely never forget that it is the improved internal communication strategy that has saved lives in the past and very well could save their own in the future.

FAA Aviation Circular 120-51D

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One Response to To Lead…or to Manage.

  1. Pingback: Revisiting Crew Resource Management (CRM) | Flying Comm Guy

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