One Step Backward for Aviation Safety?
NASA human factors research should be restored

In the face of enormous funding cuts, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has reprioritized its work and abruptly shifted away from human factors research that has helped to make aviation the safest way to travel. Congress still has a chance to restore the NASA funding and continue this research—but will it?

“With air traffic soaring, we need to do everything possible to ensure that increasing capacity doesn’t mean decreasing safety,” says ALPA Executive Air Safety Vice Chairman, Capt. Scott Schleiffer. “This is the worst possible time for NASA to turn its attention away from the human factors research that has been the key to so many safety advances.”

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has helped to transform the airline industry. Its research has benefited pilots by creating improved training and operating procedures. NASA’s aviation safety–enhancing programs include line-oriented flight training, crew resource management, flight crew monitoring, threat and error management, and normal/abnormal checklist design. In addition, NASA’s Fatigue/Jet Lag program is exploring human fatigue and physiological limitations of in-flight operations.

NASA’s Automation Human Factors program is one example of the powerful contribution that the Administration’s independent research has made to commercial aviation. Based on incident and accident reports, simulations, and surveys of airline pilots, NASA has developed a method of identifying flight deck design and automation features that are difficult for pilots to use making them prone to operational errors. NASA’s research has prompted changes in displays, controls, procedures, and training—key milestones in the path to safer skies.

“Mechanical and design malfunctions in aircraft have become increasingly rare, but we can’t rest in what must be a tireless pursuit of aviation safety,” says Schleiffer. “Exploring the ‘why’ behind human errors is the next step to enhance safety, and NASA research could mean the difference between success and failure.”

In spite of its record of success and the compelling need for more human factors research, NASA’s budget has been slashed from $1.5B in 1998 to $919M in 2005. The National Institute of Aerospace, a nonprofit research institute, called for an average 5-year annual increase of $885.5M in NASA’s aeronautics budget in a U.S. Congress-commissioned study.

ALPA has consistently pressed for full funding of NASA’s human factors work. In a January 2005 letter to then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, ALPA’s President, Capt. Duane Woerth, expressed ALPA members’ appreciation of NASA’s contributions to improving the level of safety in aviation, saying that “it is in the national interest to maintain the highest possible level of funding for this vital work.”

“In the current federal budget debate, Congress must restore NASA’s human factors research funding and invest in what has been called the last line of defense against aviation accidents,” concludes Capt. Schleiffer. “The sky’s the limit with regard to how NASA’s research can be used to make air transportation safer, but without adequate funding, that research will never get off the ground.”