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CULTURAL VARIABILITY IN CREW DISCOURSE 


Final Report 

on Cooperative Agreement No. NCC 2-933 


Ute Fischer 

School of Literature, Communication and Culture 
Georgia Institute of Technology 
Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0165 


ABSTRACT 

Four studies were conducted to determine features of effective crew communication in 
response to errors during flight. Study One examined whether US captains and first 
officers use different communication strategies to correct errors and problems on the flight 
deck, and whether their communications are affected by the two situation variables, level 
of risk and degree of face-threat involved in challenging an error. Study Two was the 
cross-cultural extension of Study One and involved pilots from three European countries. 
Study Three compared communication strategies of female and male air earner pilots who 
were matched in terms of years and type of aircraft experience. The final study assessed 
the effectiveness of the communication strategies observed in Study One. 



Fischer 


The essential thrust of Crew Resource Management (CRM) is to promote team 
work among pilots and thus to reduce human error. In addition to performing their 
individual tasks, crew members are expected to support each other by monitoring the 
situation as well as each other’s performance and to intervene if a problem is detected. 
Analyses of aviation accidents and incidents, on the other hand, have implicated failures 
of crew members to do so in many instances (NTSB, 1994; Jentsch et al. 1997). The 
present research project was designed in an effort to guide crew training by identifying 
effective communication strategies pilots could use to mitigate errors or problems on the 
flight deck. Based on previous research we hypothesized that pilots’ communications 
will be influenced by five variables: (1) the status of the speaker relative to the status of 
the addressee; (2) the risk inherent in the situation; (3) the degree of “face-threat” 
involved in challenging an error; (4) culture-specific norms for interacting with superiors 
and subordinates; and (5) the gender of the speaker. 

Previous analyses of crew discourse found that captains were more direct in 
addressing first officers than first officers were in addressing captains. However, for both 
crew positions communications were more direct during problem and emergency 
situations than during normal flight segments (Linde, 1988; Orasanu & Fischer, 1992). In 
addition to risk pilots’ communications were expected to be sensitive to the social 
implications of incidents. If others have made an obvious error, calling it to their attention 
may involve a direct challenge to their status, judgment or skill. According to politeness 
theory, in situations like these speakers will seek to protect their addressee’s face and use 
more indirect speech as compared to situations that are less face-threatening (Brown & 
Levinson, 1987). Moreover, norms that define polite and socially appropriate behavior 
vary across cultures and were found to foster distinct conversational styles (Gudykunst, 
W. B., Ting-Toomey, S., & Chua, E., 1988; Hall, 1976; Holtgraves, T., & Yang, J-N., 
1992) and attitudes toward leadership (Merritt & Helmreich, 1996; Redding & Ogilvie, 
1984). These findings suggest that pilots from different cultures may favor distinct 


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communication strategies. An issue related to cross-cultural differences in communication 
style concerns gender differences. In recent years sociolinguists have advanced the 
position that women talk differently than men (e.g., Tannen, 1990). Men were found to 
be more explicit, directive and task-oriented than women. Female speech, in turn, has 
been characterized as indirect and concerned with relational aspects of interactions 
(Lakoff, 1975; Tannen, 1990, 1994). The present research sought to determine whether 
similar differences characterize crew discourse. 

Four studies were conducted. Study One examined whether US captains and first 
officers use different communication strategies to correct errors and problems on the flight 
deck, and whether their communications are affected by level of risk and degree of face- 
threat involved in challenging an error. Study Two was the cross-cultural extension of 
Study One and involved pilots from three European countries. Study Three compared 
communication strategies of female and male air carrier pilots who were matched in terms 
of years and type of aircraft experience. The final study assessed the effectiveness of the 
communication strategies observed in Study One. 

STUDY ONE 

The aim of this study was to determine whether captains and first officers use 
different communication strategies to correct an error or problem on the flight deck. The 
effects of two situation variables were also examined: (a) level of risk inherent in a 
situation and (b) the degree of “face-threat” involved in challenging an error. 157 pilots 
(69 captains and 88 first officers) from three major US airlines participated. All 
participants were male. 

Participants received eight written problem scenarios and were asked to state how 
they would correct various pilot errors. For participating captains, low- and high-risk 
incidents were described from the perspective of the captain and involved errors or 
oversights on the part of the first officer, the pilot-flying. For first officer participants, 


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incidents were identical except that they described captains making errors and oversights. 
Participants’ responses were assigned to six classes of requests and two classes of 
speaker-centered communications differing in terms of explicitness and directness (Blum- 
Kulka, House & Kasper, 1989). 


Table 1. Classes Of Requests And Speaker-Centered Communications 


REQUESTS 1 

Commands 

Turn 30° right. 

Crew Obligation Statements 

I think we need to deviate right about now. 

Crew Suggestions 

Let ’s go around the weather. 

Queries 

Which direction would you like to deviate? 

Preferences 

I think it would be wise to turn left or right. 

Hints 

That return at 25 miles looks mean. 

SPEAKER-CENTERED COMMUNICATIONS 

Self-Directives 

I am going to get a clearance to deviate 
around these storms. 

Permission-seeking Questions 

You want me to ask for clearance to deviate 
around this weather? 


As can be seen in Figure 1, captains predominantly used commands to correct first 
officers while first officers most often used hints (i.e., problem- or goal statements) to get 
action from the captain. That is, captains were more likely than first officers to specify 
the action that should be taken, and to express their intentions more forcefully than first 
officers; i.e., there was a stronger obligation for first officers to comply with captains’ 
requests than vice versa. Similar status differences were observed for communications that 
concerned actions by the speaker. First officers were likely to assure that the captain 
agreed with their planned action (57% of their speaker-centered communications) while 
captains almost never used permission-requests relying instead on self-directives (91% of 
the time). 


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Figure 1. Distribution of Captains’ and First Officers’ Request Strategies 



In addition to status, request strategies were also influenced by the risk level 
inherent in a situation. As predicted both crew positions became more direct when risk 
increased. Nonetheless status differences persisted. Captains adjusted to higher risk 
levels mainly by issuing even more commands than in low-risk situations. First officers 
used more crew obligation statements. However, hints remained their predominant 
strategy, even in high risk situations. 

Pilots’ responses to the degree of face-threat involved in correcting an error were 
not consistent with the predictions made by politeness theory. Pilots did not generally 
shift to more indirect request strategies when they had to correct highly embarrassing 
mistakes. Instead, captains used more hints but also more commands in high face-threat 
situations while first officers were likely to increase commands, crew suggestions and 
crew obligation statements. Captains apparently focused either on the social implication 
of an error thus preferring indirect interventions for high face-threat errors, or they 
responded to the magnitude of the error correcting serious mistakes more decisively than 
minor ones. First officers seem to have appreciated either aspect dependent on the risk 


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level. In low-risk situations, they became more direct when they challenged big rather 
than small captain errors. However, when risk levels were high, errors judged to be highly 
embarrassing to the captain, were handled more indirectly than errors assumed to involve 
less face-threat. 


STUDY 2 

This study was conducted to determine whether there are cross-cultural 
differences in pilots’ communication strategies. 376 pilots (180 captains and 196 first 
officers) from three European countries participated in a study identical to Study One. 
Pilots who were non-native speakers of English, received all experimental materials 
translated into their native language. 

As shown in Figures 2 and 3, the European pilots replicated the findings from the 
US sample. However, some cross-cultural variations were apparent. Most notably, 
status-differences between European captains and first officers were less pronounced 
than those observed for US pilots. European captains were more likely than US captains 
to correct a first officer’s action by simply pointing out the problem to him or by 
reminding him of a goal. Conversely, European first officers were more likely than their 
US counterparts to issue commands. 


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Figure 2. Cross-Cultural Comparison of Captains’ Request Strategies 


I 


Commands 


Crew Obligation 


Crew Suggestion 


Queries 


Preference 


Hints 



0 20 40 60 


■ US 

□ Eurol 
O Euro2 

□ Euro3 j 


-I 1 

80 100 


Percentage of Requests 


1 


Figure 3. Cross-Cultural Comparison of First Officers’ Request Strategies 


Commands 
Crew Obligation 
Crew Suggestion 

Queries 
Preference 
Hints 

0 20 40 60 80 100 
Percentage of Requests 



Cross-cultural differences were also found concerning first officers’ responses to 
varying levels of risk and face-threat. First officers’ responses to high-risk situations fall 
into three distinct models. The first one entails an increase in crew obligation statements 


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while leaving the preponderance of hints intact. The second model involves no significant 
changes from low- to high-risk situations with hints as predominant strategy. The third 
model is characterized by a switch to a more captain- like request style insofar as 
commands become the dominant strategy in high-risk situations. Varying types of pilot 
error again yielded three distinct responses from first officers. For two groups request 
strategies were not significantly affected by error type. The remaining two groups either 
increased both hints and commands, or they used only more direct requests in response to 
high face-threat errors by the captain. 


STUDY 3 

This study examined whether sociolinguistic findings of gender differences 
generalize to crew discourse as well. 28 female US pilots (12 captains and 16 first 
officers) participated in a task identical to Study One. Communications collected by 
female pilots were then compared to responses obtained from male pilots who matched 
the female sample in terms of years and type of aircraft experience. 

We found that status rather than gender influenced pilots’ communication 
strategies. All captains, regardless of gender, were more controlling when they requested 
action from first officers than first officers were in directing captains. However, female 
pilots, in particular female captains, were more likely than male pilots to justify direct 
requests with problem or goal statements. Supportive statements may, on the one hand, 
decrease the imposition speakers place on their addressee. In addition, speakers who 
mention a problem and a corrective action make their thinking transparent and may thus 
facilitate a crew’s shared problem solving (Orasanu, 1994). 


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Figure 4. Comparison of Male and Female Pilots’ Requests Strategies 



Percentage of Requests 


STUDY FOUR 

This study had several objectives. We wanted to determine which of the 
communication strategies discerned in Study One are effective in mitigating pilot error, 
and whether supporting statements enhance the effectiveness of strategies. Moreover, we 
wanted to see whether the perceived effectiveness of strategies varied for captains and 
first officers, as well as with the risk level and degree of face-threat inherent in an incident. 

63 pilots (3 1 captains and 32 first officers) from a major US airline received the 
incident descriptions used in Study One and one example for each of the major 
communication strategies discerned. Participants were asked to rate the effectiveness and 
directness of each communication. Participating captains were told that the 
communications were from first officers. First officer participants received the same 
communications, and were told that these were captains’ communications. Half of the 
participants in each pilot group received communications unsupported by a problem- or 
goal statement while the remaining participants received the communications with 
supporting statements. 


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Effective communication strategies were found to be neither too direct nor too 
indirect, but instead to appeal to the crew’s shared responsibility for coping with 
problem situations. Both pilot groups gave high effectiveness ratings to crew obligation 
statements, preference statements, crew suggestions and hints, and consistently rated 
commands, the most direct communication strategy, as less effective. Even in high-risk 
situations, commands were judged to be less effective than crew obligation statements. 
Moreover, communications that were supported by a problem or goal statement received 
higher effectiveness ratings than unsupported communications. Both constructions, 
however, were perceived as equally direct. That is, pilots apparently attributed the 
increased effectiveness of complex communications to their cognitive benefits rather than 
to differences in politeness. 


REFERENCES 

Blum-Kulka, S. House, J. & Kasper, G. (Eds.) (1989). Cross-cultural 
pragmatics: Requests and apologies. (Advances in Discourse Processes: Vol. 31). 
Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing. 

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universal in language 
usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Gudykunst, W. B., Ting-Toomey, S., & Chua, E. (1988). Culture and 
interpersonal communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. 

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday. 

Holtgraves, T., & Yang, J-N. (1992). Interpersonal underpinnings of request 
strategies: General principles and differences due to culture and gender. Journal of 
Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 246-256. 


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Jentsch, F., Martin, L. & Bowers, C. (1997). Identifying critical training needs for 
junior first officers. Special Technical Report submitted to Naval Air Warfare Center 
Training Systems Division. May 12, 1997 

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and women’ s' place. New York: Harper and Row. 

Linde, C. (1988). The quantitative study of communicative success: Politeness 
and accidents in aviation discourse. Language in Society, 17, 375-399. 

Merritt, A. C., & Helmreich, R. L. (1996). Human factors on the flight deck: 

The influence of national culture. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 27, 5-24 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) (1994). Safety study: A review of 
flightcrew-involved, major accidents of US air carriers, 1978 through 1990 (NTSB/SS- 
94/01). Washington DC: National Technical Information Service. 

Orasanu, J. (1994). Shared problem models and flight crew performance. In N. 
Johnston, N. McDonald, & R. Fuller (Eds.), Aviation psychology in practice, (pp. 255- 
285). Avebury Technical. 

Orasanu, J., & Fischer, U. (1992). Distributed cognition in the cockpit: Linguistic 
control of shared problem solving. In Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Conference of 
the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 189-194). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 

Redding, S. G., & Ogilvie, J. G. (1984). Cultural effects on cockpit 
communications in civilian aircraft. Flight Safety Foundation Conference, Zurich. 
Washington, DC: Flight Safety Foundation. 

Tannen, D. (1990). You just don't understand: Men and women in conversation. 
New York: Ballantine. 

Tannen, D. (1994). Gender and discourse. New York: Oxford University Press. 


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PRESENTATIONS 

Say it again, Sam! Effective communication strategies to mitigate pilot error . 

Paper presented at the 10th International Symposium on Aviation Psychology, 

Columbus, OH, May 1999 

How to challenge the captain's actions. Paper presented at the 9th International Symposium 
on Aviation Psychology, Columbus, OH, April 1997 

The effect of status and gender on pilots' communication strategies. Paper presented at the 
Aviation Communication Symposium, Embry Riddle University, Prescott, A Z, March 1997. 

Experience and role effects on expert pilots' judgments of problem situations. Paper presented 
at the International Congress of Psychology in Montreal, August 1996. 

PUBLICATIONS 

Fischer, U., & Orasanu, J. (unpublished manuscript). Crew communication 
strategies to mitigate pilot error: A cross-cultural comparison of US and European pilots. 

Fischer, U., & Orasanu, J. (in press). Say it again, Sam! Effective communication 
strategies to mitigate pilot error. In Proceedings of the Tenth International Symposium on 
Aviation Psychology. Columbus, OH. 

Fischer, U., & Orasanu, J. (1997). How to challenge the captain's actions. In Proceedings of 
the Ninth International Symposium on Aviation Psychology. Columbus, OH. 


Orasanu, J., Fischer, U., McDonnell, L., Davison, J., Haars, K., Villeda, E., & VanAken, 
V. (1998). How do flight crews detect and prevent errors? Findings from a flight simulation 
study. In Proceedings of the Forty-first Annual confernce of the Human Fetors and Ergonomics 
Society, Chicago, IL. 

Orasanu, J., Davison, J., & Fischer U. (1997). What did he say? Culture and 
language barriers to efficient communication in global aviation. In Proceedings of the 
Ninth International Symposium on Aviation Psychology. Columbus, OH. 

Orasanu, J., Fischer U., & Davison, J. (1997). Cultural barriers to effective 
communication in aviation (pp. 134-160). In S. Oskamp & C. Granrose (Eds.), Cross- 
cultural working groups. The Claremont Social Psychology Symposium. London: Sage. 


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APPENDIX 
(selected publications) 


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CREW COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES TO MITIGATE PILOT ERROR: 
A CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON OF US AND EUROPEAN PILOTS 


Ute Fischer 

School of Literature, Communication and Culture 
Georgia Institute of Technology 
Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0165 


Judith Orasanu 
Aviation Safety Branch 
NASA Ames Research Center MS 262-4 
Moffett Field, California 94035-1000 


ABSTRACT 


A study was conducted to determine whether captains and first officers use different 
communication strategies to correct an error or problem on the flight deck. The effects of 
two situation variables were also examined: (a) level of risk inherent in a situation and (b) 
the degree of “face-threat” involved in challenging an error. Pilots from the US and three 
European countries participated. They received written problem scenarios and were 
asked to state how they would correct various pilot errors. Participants’ responses were 
then assigned to eight classes of communications differing in terms of request perspective, 
explicitness and directness. Analyses revealed that captains were generally more direct in 
addressing first officers than first officers were in addressing captains. This effect was 
particularly pronounced for the US pilots. Moreover analyses showed a significant effect 
of perceived risk on pilots’ communications. Captains and first officers, except for one 
first officer group, were more direct with increased risk. Responses to high- and low-face 
threatening errors were more varied. Some pilot groups used both hints and commands to 
correct serious pilot errors, while the remaining pilot groups did not significantly change 
their communications as a function of face threat. Training implications of our findings 
are also discussed. 



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157 US pilots (69 captains and 88 first officers) participated in a study conducted 
by researchers of the Georgia Institute of Technology and NAS A- Ames Research Center. 
This project is part of an ongoing effort to determine features of effective crew 
communication, especially in response to errors during flight. Specifically, this study was 
designed to answer the following questions: (1) What communication strategies do first 
officers use when they have to challenge the actions of a captain, and vice versa, what are 
captains’ preferred strategies in this context? (2) How does perceived threat to flight 
safety and error type affect pilots’ choice of strategy? (3) Are there cross-cultural 
differences in pilots’ communication strategies? 

Overall the study involved 249 captains and 284 first officers from the US and 
three European countries. All captains and 280 first officers were male; the four female 
first officers were from the three European countries. Participants received eight short 
descriptions of aviation incidents in their native language 1 . The incidents varied in their 
threat to flight safety ( high or low risk) and type of problem (high or low face threat 
errors). Minor errors, such as an oversight, were considered to be low in face-threat 
because they did not involve a direct challenge to the pilot’s skill or judgment. Big 
mistakes, such as an altitude bust, were considered to be high in face-threat because 
correcting them meant a direct challenge to the pilot’s skill or judgment. For participating 
captains, low- and high-risk incidents were described from the perspective of the captain 
and involved errors or oversights on the part of the first officer, the pilot-flying. For first 
officer participants, incidents were identical except that they described captains making 
errors and oversights. The incident descriptions were printed in a test booklet, one 
description per page. 

Participants were asked to complete two tasks: a Discourse Completion Task and 
then a Judgment Task requiring participants to rate each incident in terms of risk to flight 

1 The foreign language material was translated back into English and compared with the English original to 
assure equivalence of the study material across languages 

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safety and how embarrassing it was to the other pilot. In the Discourse Completion 
Task, participants read the incident descriptions and were asked to imagine themselves in 
the position of the non-flying pilot (captain or first officer - depending on the crew 
position of the participant). Each incident description was followed by a goal statement. 
The participants’ task was to write out verbatim what they would say to the pilot flying 
(the first officer or the captain) in order to achieve the stated goal. For instance, captain 
participants saw the following description and goal statement: 


While cruising in IMC at FL 3 10, you notice on the weather radar an area 
of heavy precipitation 25 miles ahead. First Officer Henry Jones, who 
is flying the aircraft, is maintaining his present course at Mach .73 even 
though embedded thunderstorms have been reported in your area and you 
encounter moderate turbulence. 

You want to ensure that your aircraft will not penetrate this area. 

There are many ways in which the non-flying pilot could achieve this goal. He 
could either take some action himself or could ask the pilot flying to take a particular goal- 
consistent action. We categorized the former as speaker-centered communications and the 
latter as other-centered communications or requests. An example of a speaker-centered 
communication is, “I am going to talk to ATC and request a deviation .” Requesting a 
colleague to act, on the other hand, could be done by saying "Let 's go around the 
weather.’" 

Both types of communications could vary in the extent to which speakers were 
direct and explicit about what action to take and who is to do it. Overall six classes of 
requests and two classes of speaker-centered communications were distinguished, as 
shown in Table 1 . Commands are the most direct form of request — they leave little 
doubt about what action a speaker wants his addressee to perform. Crew obligation 
statements and crew suggestions are less direct than commands insofar as they do not 


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explicitly refer to the addressee as the one who is to take the action. Moreover, crew 
suggestions are less forceful than either commands or crew obligation statements because 
they simply propose, rather than assert a particular corrective action. Commands and 
crew obligation statements, in contrast, are more binding, the former by demanding 
adherence and the latter by appealing to an existing obligation. 


TABLE 1. CLASSES OF REQUESTS AND SPEAKER-CENTERED 

COMMUNICATIONS 


REQUESTS 

Commands 

Turn 30° right. 

Crew Obligation Statements 

I think we need to deviate right about now. 

Crew Suggestions 

Let ’s go around the weather. 

Queries 

Which direction would you like to deviate? 

Preferences 

I think it would be wise to turn left or right. 

Hints 

That return at 25 miles looks mean. 

SPEAKER-CENTERED COMMUNICATIONS 

Self-Directives 

I am going to get a clearance to deviate 
around these storms. 

Permission-seeking Questions 

You want me to ask for clearance to deviate 
around this weather? 


Queries, the fourth request type neither call for nor assert a particular corrective action. 
Instead, speakers inquire about the addressee’s willingness to take the action. Similarly, 
preference statements are indirect requests insofar as speakers do not overtly make a 


request but rather express their or a third party’s (i.e., ATC) preference for a particular 


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course of action. Hints, i.e., problem or goal statements, are the least direct form of 
request. Speakers do not specify any course of action; rather they point to a problem or 
remind of a previously established goal. Similar distinctions were made for speaker- 
centered communications. Self-directives are the most direct form of speaker-centered 
communication. Like commands, they leave little doubt about the speaker’s intentions 
and express a strong commitment on his part to a particular course of action. Permission- 
seeking questions, in contrast, leave it to the addressee to agree with a planned action of 
the speaker. 

Responses were also coded in terms of their structure, either simple or complex. 
Simple communications involved only a request or a speaker-centered communication. 
Complex communications consisted of two parts : one that realized the stated goal and a 
second one that provided a reason for the request or speaker-centered communication. 

An example of a complex communication is “I see we have some cells painting on radar . I 
think we should turn left about 30°. ” 

To assess the reliability of the coding, 25% of the responses to each scenario were 
randomly selected and independently coded by two judges. Percent agreement between 
the raters was high: 90% for coding of the communication strategies and 88% for their 
structure. 

I. DO CAPTAINS AND FIRST OFFICERS DIFFER IN THEIR PREFERRED 
STRATEGIES FOR CHALLENGING THE ACTIONS OF THE PILOT FLYING? 

First, we will describe requests or other-directed communications, and then 
describe speaker-centered communications. 

Requests . 78 percent of the captains’ and 80% of the first officers’ responses 
were requests for the other pilot to take action. Log-linear analyses revealed that first 
officers and captains favored different request strategies. Most noticeable is their distinct 
use of hints and commands, the two most common strategies. Captains most frequently 


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used commands, while first officers most often used hints, a very indirect approach. First 
officers did not specify any particular course of action, but instead pointed to a problem 
or reminded the captain of a previously established goal. Apparently they assumed that 
the captain would feel committed to a corrective action once he agreed with their 
assessment of the situation. In so doing, first officers at most questioned the captain’s 
understanding of the situation. But they minimally challenged his status since the 
decision about how best to respond to the problem was left to the captain. 


FIGURE 1. 

CAPTAINS’ AND FIRST OFFICERS’ COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES 


I 


Commands 
Crew Obligation 
Crew Suggestion 
Queries 
Preference 
Hints 


Self-Directives 

Permission 



0 20 40 60 80 100 


While captains also used indirect requests (i.e., hints), they did so less frequently 
than first officers. As Figure 1 shows, hints were three times more frequent in first 


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officers’ than in captains’ communications. Captains, on the other hand, used commands 
three times as often as first officers. This pattern of findings indicates that while 
pursuing identical communicative goals, captains take a more direct route than first 
officers. Captains were more likely than first officers to specify the action that should be 
taken. Moreover, in issuing more commands and fewer hints than first officers, captains 
expressed their intentions more forcefully than first officers; i.e., there was a stronger 
obligation for first officers to comply with captains’ requests than vice versa. 

However, direct requests, such as commands, were frequently accompanied by 
justifications as in the following example: “We are too far left of centerline for parallel 
approaches - correct right immediately!" On average, 63% of both captains’ and first 
officers’ direct requests (i.e., commands, crew obligation statements and suggestions) 
were of this kind. As the example illustrates, justifications may serve several social and 
cognitive purposes. By referring to some problem or goal in addition to making a direct 
request, speakers decrease the imposition of their communication on the addressee. Since 
there is some objective event requiring an action, the speaker’s request becomes 
reasonable and his role in requesting is thus minimized. Besides their social function, 
complex communications also have important implications for crew decision making. 
Speakers who mention a problem and action make their thinking transparent and may 
thus facilitate a crew’s shared understanding of the situation. By placing their requests 
into a context, speakers ensure that other crew members are able to see why they are 
asked to perform a particular action. Moreover, crew members are then in a position to 
verify for themselves that the speaker’s problem understanding is appropriate, and that 
the requested action is indeed the best response. 

Speaker-centered communications . About 2 1 percent of all communications were 
speaker-centered rather than other-directed (i.e., requests). Status-based differences were 
again observed for speaker-centered communications. US captains almost never asked 
permission-seeking questions, relying instead on self-directive statements like, I'll call 


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ATC and find out if he still wants on this heading." (91% of the time). US first officers, in 
contrast, preferred permission requests to self-directives. In 57 percent of their speaker- 
centered communications did they verify that the captain agreed with their planned 
actions as in the following example: "Do you want me to ask ATC if they still want us on 
this heading? ” 

Since self-directives are more assertive than permission-seeking questions, we 
predicted structural differences between these utterance types similar to the ones 
observed for more and less direct requests. That is, we expected that speakers would feel 
more inclined to justify self-directives than permission-seeking questions. Contrary to 
our expectations, complex communications dominated both self-directives and 
permission-seeking questions by captains and first officers. This finding may either 
indicate that speaker-centered communications are in general considered to be rather bold 
communicative moves that require some mitigation. Recall that the speaker in all 
scenarios is the pilot-not- flying! Or, it may suggest that the speaker seeks to coordinate 
the activities of the crew and in order to do so, provides the broader context. 

Before leaving the discussion of differences between captains’ and first officers’ 
communication strategies we need to stress that our analyses concern pilots’ initial 
reactions to errors or oversights of the pilot flying. Our study indicates that first officers 
are likely to be less forceful when they first attempt to correct an oversight or 
inappropriate action of the captain than are captains in their responses to errors by first 
officers. While indirect speech is more polite than direct speech, it also carries the risk of 
misunderstanding. Listeners may not realize the indirectness of an utterance and may 
misinterpret the speaker’s intention. Or, listeners may mistake politeness for 
indecisiveness and consequently may not take the implied intention seriously enough. 
Thus, by being indirect, first officers may not succeed in getting their intention 
understood or heard. 


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We do not know how first officers would proceed if their initial attempt turned 
out to be unsuccessful. It is conceivable that in these circumstances first officers would 
switch to more direct means of communicating their intentions. As will be seen in our 
discussion of strategy use in low- and high risk situations, there is reason to suspect that 
first officers are not invariably indirect but instead will adjust the directness of their 
communications to situational demands. 

II. HOW DO PERCEIVED THREAT TO FLIGHT SAFETY AND ERROR TYPE 
AFFECT PILOTS’ CHOICE OF STRATEGY? 

So far, we have addressed pilots’ communication strategies in general, across 
situations, without considering how specific features of situations influenced strategy use. 
Two situation variables were manipulated in our study: threat to flight safety and type 
of pilot error. There were four types of scenarios: low-risk and high-risk situations 
involving either small errors by the pilot-flying or highly embarrassing mistakes. As their 
ratings in the Judgment Task revealed, 107 of the 157 participants did distinguish 
between these four types of scenarios 1 2 . Our next analyses examined whether differences 
in risk and embarrassment levels were reflected in pilots’ communication strategies. 

Figures 2 and 3 show that varying risk levels and error types had no significant 
effect on US pilots’ speaker-centered communications. Both variables, however, 
influenced how US captains and first officers phrased requests. 

As indicated by their ratings in the Judgment Task, US captains and first officers 
agreed in their risk assessment of the incidents. Nonetheless, captains were more direct 
than first officers in responding to high-risk incidents. Like the captains from other 


1 For the remaining 50 participants, high-risk situations were generally rated to be more embarrassing than 
low-risk situations. Responses of these participants were consequently excluded from the analyses 

concerning the effects of risk and type of pilot error on communication strategies. 



US Report 


countries in our cross-cultural sample, US captains adjusted to risk mainly by increasing 
the number of commands and by decreasing the number of hints. 


FIGURE 2. CAPTAINS’ COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES AS A FUNCTION OF 

RISK LEVEL AND ERROR TYPE 


t 

i 


Commands 
Crew Obligation 
Crew Suggestion 
Queries 
Preference 
Hints 


Self-Directives 

Permission 



0 20 40 60 80 100 


For US first officers hints remained the single most frequent request strategy, even 
in high-risk situations. However, their use of direct request strategies, i.e., of commands, 
crew obligation statements and suggestions, rose from 24% to 47% as risk increased. 

This increase in direct requests is predominantly due to the fact that first officers used 
four times as many crew obligation statements in high-risk than in low-risk situations. In 
this respect, US first officers responded like first officers from European country 1. 

Their colleagues from the other European countries either did not significantly change 


10 





US Report 


their communications with varying risk levels, or used considerably more commands in 
high-risk situations, thus becoming more captain-like. 

FIGURE 3. FIRST OFFICERS’ COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES AS A 
FUNCTION OF RISK LEVEL AND ERROR TYPE 


I 


Commands 
Crew Obligation 
Crew Suggestion 
Queries 
Preference 
Hints 


Self-Directives 

Permission 



0 20 40 60 80 100 


US captains’ and first officers’ request strategies not only varied with risk but 
also changed with error type. US captains used more hints but also more commands in 
situations in which first officers committed some real error, e.g., an altitude bust, rather 
than some minor oversight. US first officers tended to increase commands, crew 
obligation statements and suggestions in these situations. While US captains reacted like 
most of their European colleagues, US first officers differed from their European 
counterparts. One European first officer group responded to real errors as the majority of 


11 


US Report 


captains did; the other groups did not significantly shift their request strategies with error 
type. 

Overall our participants’ responses to the different types of pilot error is 
somewhat surprising given the dictum of politeness theory that speakers will usually seek 
to protect their addressee’s “face.” Politeness theory predicts that pilots will use more 
indirect communications when they have to address the other pilot in situations that are 
highly face-threatening to him or her, i.e., when they have to correct serious errors rather 
than small mistakes that involve little face-threat. Interestingly, neither pilot showed a 
strategy shift in the predicted direction, although all of them judged serious errors to be 
more embarrassing to the pilot flying than small mistakes. 

One possible explanation, in particular of US captains’ responses is that the 
situation variable “type of pilot error ” allowed two distinct perspectives. Some of the 
study participants may have focused on the social implication of an error and adjusted 
their communications to the degree to which their intervention would be a direct challenge 
to the other pilot’s skill and judgment. Other participants may have responded to the 
magnitude of an error and consequently corrected real mistakes more decisively than 
minor ones. 

Alternatively, this finding may reflect the joint effect of risk level and error type 
on pilots’ request strategies. That is, pilots may have assessed and responded differently 
to errors as the risk inherent in a situation changed. European captains, for instance, 
became more indirect, i.e., used more hints, in response to high face-threat errors by the 
first officer, but only when risk was low. When risk was high, safety considerations 
apparently took precedence over social considerations and captains used predominantly 
commands to mitigate errors by the first officer. Risk and error type may have also 
affected US first officers’ strategy choice, albeit in a rather different direction. Figure 3 
suggests that in low-risk situations, they became more direct (i.e., used more commands 
and fewer hints) when they challenged big rather than small captain errors. However in 


12 



US Report 


high-risk situations, their use of direct requests remained the same and the number of 
hints increased for high face-threat errors. That is, when risk levels were high, errors that 
were judged to be highly embarrassing to the captain were handled more indirectly than 
errors assumed to involve less face-threat. 

III. ARE THERE CROSS-CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN PILOTS’ 
COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES? 

The answer to this question is yes. Most notably, status-differences between US 
captains and first officers are more pronounced than those observed for European pilots. 

FIGURE 4. CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON OF CAPTAINS’ 
COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES 


Commands 
Crew Obligation 
Crew Suggestion 
Queries 
Preference 
Hints 


Self-Directives 

Permission 



o 20 40 60 80 100 


13 


US Report 


Figure 4 indicates that European captains were more likely than US captains to correct a 
first officer’s action by simply pointing out the problem to him or by reminding him of a 
goal. Conversely, as can bee seen in Figure 5, European first officers were more likely 
than their US counterparts to issue commands and to use self-directives. 


FIGURE 5. CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON OF FIRST OFFICERS’ 
COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES 


i 

I 


Commands 
Crew Obligation 
Crew Suggestion 
Queries 
Preference 
Hints 


Self-Directives 

Permission 



0 20 40 60 80 100 


This finding contrasts with previous research on pilots’ attitudes towards 
leadership. These surveys found low power distance between US captains and first 
officers, whereas a more hierarchical crew structure was observed for European pilots. 
Given their attitude data, we expected US and European pilots' communications to differ 


14 



US Report 


in the opposite direction than we found. The discrepancy in findings between our study 
and the attitude research may be the result of differing methodologies. Attitudes are 
inferred from the extent to which pilots agree or disagree with generic statements such as 
“Crewmembers shouldn't question the captain unless the safety of the flight is 
threatened.” Answers to these statements may reflect pilots' assessment of how likely it 
is that they would display the behavior mentioned. Or, the responses may indicate 
pilots' judgments of the appropriateness of the behavior. Moreover, attitude studies do 
not specify how pilots would go about “questioning the captain.” Our study, on the 
other hand, addressed exactly this issue by investigating what specific strategies pilots 
say they would use and how their strategies correlate with specific aspects of situations. 


IMPLICATIONS FOR TRAINING 

In this final section we discuss two issues that emerge from our findings that 
are pertinent to training. The first issue concerns the fact that pilots predominantly rely 
on one status-consistent strategy to request action of a colleague. One question that 
comes readily to mind and that could be discussed during training is: To what extent 
would more flexible strategies be beneficial? In addition, training could address the 
advantages and disadvantages of captains’ and first officers’ preferred strategies, i.e., of 
commands and hints, respectively. For example, captains’ commands may lead to 
complacency by the first officer. In commanding action, captains put considerable 
pressure on first officers to comply. Consequently, first officers might not verify the 
appropriateness of the requested action, or they might find it difficult to challenge the 
captain’s judgment. This may especially be a danger when commands are not supported 
by problem or goal statements. Since these supportive statements shift the motivation 
for the command away from the captain’s status to some objective necessity, they may 
facilitate input by junior crew members. Likewise, there are advantages and disadvantages 
associated with hints, first officers’ main strategy for requesting captain action. While 


15 



US Report 


first officers’ problem and goal statements are certainly task-relevant communications, 
they entail the risk that captains will not act on them. This is not to say that hints are 
necessarily ineffective request strategies. Instead, training could identify possible follow- 
up strategies that first officers could (or should) use if the captain does not respond 
adequately to their request. 

The second training issue that follows from our research concerns pilots’ response 
to varying risk levels and different types of pilot error. With respect to the US sample in 
our study, relevant findings are: (1) First officers, as did captains, used more direct 
requests in high-risk than in low-risk situations. However, hints remained the preferred 
first officer strategy, even in high-risk situations. (2) Captains used either more 
commands or more hints when they corrected big errors rather than small mistakes of the 
first officer. First officers responded similarly although their use of commands and hints 
tended to vary with risk level. In low-risk situations, real errors of the captain elicited 
more commands than small mistakes whereas in high-risk situations, big mistakes led to 
an increase in hints. 

Our cross-cultural comparison revealed that while captains were a fairly 
homogenous group, first officers’ responses were more varied. European first officers’ 
responses to high-risk situations can be summarized in three distinct models. The first 
one replicates the response pattern of US first officers and entails an increase in crew 
obligation statements while leaving the preponderance of hints intact. The second model 
involves no significant changes from low- to high-risk situations with hints as 
predominant strategy. The third model is characterized by a switch to a more captain-like 
request style in high-risk situations as commands become the dominant strategy. Varying 
levels of pilot error yielded two distinct responses from European first officers. For two 
groups we found that request strategies were not significantly affected by error type. 

The remaining group increased their use of hints and of commands in response to big, 
highly-embarrassing mistakes of a captain, and, unlike US first officers, did so across risk 


16 



US Report 


levels. These cross-cultural variations indicate that pilots atttach different importance to 
the same situation variables and respond differently to identical incidents. Training could 
address whether any of the observed communication models is desirable or whether some 
alternative model may be more effective. For example in subsequent work, we found that 
pilots generally judged crew obligation statements as more effective them commands, even 
in high-risk situations. 


17 



To appear in Proceedings of the 10th International Symposium on Aviation Psychology, Columbus, OH. 


SAY IT AGAIN, SAM! 

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES TO MITIGATE PILOT ERROR 


Ute Fischer 

Georgia Institute of Technology 
Atlanta, GA 30332-0165 


ABSTRACT 

Study 1 investigated role and status effects on 
communication strategies, using responses to written 
problem scenarios. Responses were assigned to eight 
classes of communications differing in terms cf 
request perspective, explicitness and directness. 
Analyses revealed that captains predominantly used 
commands while first officers preferred hints, i.e. 
problem- and goal statements. Study 2 examined the 
effectiveness of the eight communication types, using 
pilots’ effectiveness ratings. Both crew positions 
rated crew obligation statements as more effective 
than commands. Overall, effective communication 
strategies were those that made clear what to do while 
appealing to the crew’s shared responsibility for 
coping with problem situations. 

INTRODUCTION 

The essential thrust of Crew Resource 
Management (CRM) is to promote team work among 
pilots and thus to reduce human error. In addition to 
performing their individual tasks, crew members are 
expected to support each other by monitoring the 
situation as well as each other’s performance and to 
intervene if a problem is detected. However, failures 
to do so are not infrequent. The National 
Transportation Safety Board reviewed all flightcrew- 
involved major accidents of US air carriers between 
1978 and 1990 and identified monitoring or 
challenging errors in 3/4 of these 37 accidents 
(NTSB, 1994). Similarly, Jentsch et al. (1997) 
analyzed ASRS reports on junior first officer errors 
and found that 54% of the cases concerned 
monitoring/challenging or assertiveness. 

Pilots may fail in this critical crew function either 
because they did not notice a problem, or because 
they did not succeed in communicating their concerns 
to the other pilot. Our work addresses the second 
issue. Study 1 examined pilots’ communication 
strategies to correct an error or problem on the flight 
deck. Study 2 investigated how first officers and 
captains could do so effectively. 


Judith Orasanu 

NASA Ames Research Center 
Moffett Field, CA 94035-1000 


STUDY 1 

This study was conducted to determine which 
communication strategies pilots are likely to use to 
mitigate errors by another crew member. Based on 
previous research we hypothesized that pilots 
communications will be influenced by three variables. 
(1) the status of the speaker relative to the status cf 
the addressee; (2) the risk inherent in the situation; 
and (3) the degree of “face-threat” involved in 
challenging an error. Previous analyses of crew 
discourse found that captains were more direct in 
addressing first officers than first officers were in 
addressing captains. However, for both crew 
positions communications were more direct during 
problem and emergency situations than during 
normal flight segments (Linde, 1988; Orasanu & 
Fischer, 1992). In addition to risk we suspected that 
pilots’ communications are sensitive to the social 
implications of incidents. If others have made an 
obvious error, calling it to their attention may 
involve a direct challenge to their status, judgment or 
skill. According to politeness theory, in situations 
like these speakers will seek to protect their 
addressee’s face and use more indirect speech as 
compared to situations that are less face-threatening 
(Brown & Levinson, 1 987). 

METHOD 

157 pilots (69 captains and 88 first officers) from 
three major US airlines participated in the study. All 
participants were male. 

Participants received eight short descriptions cf 
aviation incidents which varied in their threat to 
flight safety ( high or low risk) and type of problem 
(high or low face-threat errors). Minor errors, such as 
an oversight, were considered to be low in face-threat 
because they did not involve a direct challenge to the 
pilot’s skill or judgment. Big mistakes, such as an 
altitude bust, were considered to be high in face-threat 
because correcting them meant a direct challenge to 
the pilot’s skill. For participating captains, low- and 
high-risk incidents were described from the 
perspective of the captain and involved errors or 



oversights on the part of the first officer, the pilot- 
flying. For first officer participants, the incidents 
were identical except that they described captains 
making errors and oversights. 

Participants read the incident descriptions and 
were asked to imagine themselves in the position of 
the non-flying pilot (captain or first officer - 
depending on the crew position of the participant). 
Each incident description was followed by a goal 
statement. The participants’ task was to write out 
verbatim what they would say to the pilot flying (the 
first officer or the captain) in order to achieve the 
stated goal. For instance, captain participants saw 
the following description and goal statement: 


While cruising in IMC at FL 310, you 
notice on the weather radar an area of 
heavy precipitation 25 miles ahead. First 
Officer Henry Jones, who is flying the 
aircraft, is maintaining his present course 
at Mach .73 even though embedded 
thunderstorms have been reported in your 
area and you encounter moderate 
turbulence. 

You want to ensure that your aircraft 
will not penetrate this area. 


Responses were then assigned to eight classes of 
communication that differed in terms of their focus, 
explicitness and directness (Blum-Kulka, House & 
Kasper, 1989). Other-directed communications or 
requests referred to an action the addressee was to 
perform, while speaker-centered communications 
specified an action by the speaker. Both types cf 
communications could vary in the extent to which 
speakers were direct and explicit about what action to 
take and who is to do it. Overall six classes of 
requests and two classes of speaker-centered 
communications were distinguished, as shown in 
Table 1. 

Responses were also coded in terms of their 
structure, either simple or complex. Simple 
communications involved only a request or a speaker- 
centered communication. Complex communications 
consisted of two parts: one that realized the stated 
goal and a second one that provided reasons for the 
request or speaker-centered communication. An 
example of a complex communication is “I see we 
have some cells painting on radar. I think we should 
turn left about 30°. ” 


Table 1. Classes Of Requests And Speaker-Centered 
Communications 


t REQUESTS 

Commands 

Turn 30° right. 

Crew Obligation 
Statements 

i think we need to 
deviate right about 
now. 

Crew Suggestions 

Let ’s go around the 
weather. 

Queries 

Which direction would 
you like to deviate? 

Preferences 

I think it would be wise 
to turn left or right. 

Hints 

That return at 25 miles 
looks mean. 

SPEAKER-CENTERED COMMUNICATIONS 

Self-Directives 

I am going to get a 
clearance to deviate 
around these storms. 

Perm ission-seeking 
Questions 

You want me to ask for 
clearance to deviate 
around this weather? 


RESULTS AND DISCUSSION 

Loglinear analyses of the responses revealed that 
first officers most often used hints to get action from 
the captain. That is, first officers preferred statements 
such as “That return at 25 miles looks mean " that 
did not specify any corrective action, but instead 
pointed to a problem or reminded the captain of a 
previously established goal. Apparently first officers 
assumed that the captain would feel committed to a 
corrective action once he agreed with their assessment 
of the situation. In so doing, fust officers at most 
questioned the captain’s understanding of the 
situation. But they minimally challenged his status 
since the decision about how best to respond to the 
problem was left to the captain. Captains, in contrast, 
predominantly used commands to correct first officers. 
This pattern of findings indicates that while pursuing 
identical communicative goals, captains take a more 
direct route than first officers. Captains were more 
likely than first officers to specify the action that 
should be taken. Moreover, in issuing more 
commands and fewer hints than first officers, captains 
expressed their intentions more forcefully than first 
officers; i.e., there was a stronger obligation for first 
officers to comply with captains’ requests than vice 
versa. 





Figure 1. Distribution Of Captains’ And First 
Officers’ Request Strategies 



Similar status differences were observed fa 
communications that concerned actions by the 
speaker. First officers were likely to assure that the 
captain agreed with their planned action as in "Do 
you want me to ask ATC if they still want us on this 
heading?" 57% of all first officers’ speaker-centered 
communications were of this kind. Captains, on the 
other hand, almost never used permission-requests 
relying instead on self-directives (91% of the time) 
such as ‘77/ call ATC and find out if he still wants 
us on this heading . ” 

While both captains and first officers became more 
direct when risk increased, status differences 
nonetheless persisted. Captains adjusted to higher 
risk levels mainly by issuing even more commands 
than in low-risk situations (from 47% to 63%). First 
officers, in contrast, quadrupled their use of crew 
obligation statements (from 4% to 16%) as risk 
increased. However, hints remained their 
predominant strategy, even in high risk situations. 
Captains’ and first officers’ request strategies not only 
varied with risk but also changed with error type. 
Though commands were captains’ preferred response 
to both low face-threat and high face-threat errors, 
captains tended to use more hints in situations in 
which first officers committed some real error, e.g., an 
altitude bust, rather than some minor oversight. 
First officers were likely to increase commands, crew 
obligation statements and suggestions in these 
situations while hints remained their dominant 
strategy. 


Concerning the structure of pilots’ 
communications we found that more direct requests 
were usually accompanied by justifications as in the 
following example: "We are too far left of centerline 
for parallel approaches - correct right 
immediately !" On average, 63% of captains’ and first 
officers’ direct requests (i.e., commands, crew 
obligation statements and suggestions) were of this 
kind. As the example illustrates, justifications may 
serve several social and cognitive purposes. By 
referring to some problem or goal in addition to 
making a direct request, speakers decrease the 
imposition of their communication on the addressee. 
In addition, speakers who mention a problem and 
action make their thinking transparent and may thus 
facilitate a crew’s shared understanding of the 
situation. Interestingly, we also observed that 
captains and first officers generally supported speaker- 
centered communications with problem- or goal 
statements. This finding may either indicate that 
speaker-centered communications are in general 
considered to be rather bold communicative moves 
that require some mitigation. Recall that the speaker 
in all scenarios is the pilot-non-flying! Or, it may 
suggest that the speaker seeks to coordinate the 
activities of the crew and in order to do so, provides 
the broader context. 

Before leaving the discussion of differences 
between captains’ and fust officers’ communication 
strategies we want to stress that our analyses concern 
pilots’ initial reactions to errors or oversights of the 
pilot flying. Our analyses indicate that first officers 
are likely to be less forceful when they first attempt to 
correct an oversight or inappropriate action of the 
captain than are captains in their responses to errors 
by first officers. In our second study we examined 
how effective their respective strategies would be in 
getting a colleague to comply with their intended 
action. 

STUDY 2 

This study had several objectives. We wanted to 
determine which of the communication strategies 
discerned in Study 1 are effective in mitigating pilot 
error, and whether supporting statements enhance the 
effectiveness of strategies. Moreover, we wanted to 
see whether the perceived effectiveness of strategies 
varied for captains and first officers, as well as with 
the risk level and degree of face-threat inherent in an 
incident. 

63 pilots (31 captains and 32 first officers) from a 
major US airline participated in this study. 
Participants received the eight incident descriptions 
as well as instances of the different communication 
strategies that we could distinguish in Study 1 . Per 




incident we listed one example of each of the request 
strategies and speaker-centered communications listed 
in Table 1. Participants were asked to imagine that 
they had just committed the mistake described in the 
scenario and that the communications were directed at 
them. Their task was then to rate on a 9-point scale 
how effective each communication would be in 
getting them to carry out the speaker’s intent. 
Communications they judged to be most effective 
were to receive a rating of “9.” These were defined as 
“highly appropriate to the problem while 

maintaining a positive crew climate.” Least effective 
communications were to receive a rating of “1” and 
were defined as “tactless, excessive or inappropriate.” 
In a second task, participants were asked to rate how 
direct each communication type was; i.e., “how clear 
it was what the speaker wanted done and how much 
pressure he put on the addressee to act.” The order c f 
effectiveness and directness ratings were 

counterbalanced across participants 

Participating captains were told that the 
communications were from first officers. First officer 
participants received the same communications, and 
were told that these were captains’ communications. 
Half of the participants in each pilot group received 
simple communications; i.e., the communications 
consisted only of a request or a speaker-centered 
communication. The remaining participants received 
complex communications; i.e., they were asked to 
rate requests and speaker-centered communications 
that were supported by problem or goal statements. 

RESULTS 

Analyses of captains’ and first officers’ mean 
ratings of the communication types per scenario 
revealed the following statistically significant effects: 
(1) Communications that were supported by a 
problem or goal statement received higher 
effectiveness ratings than unsupported 
communications. Complex and simple 

communications , however, were perceived as equally 
direct. That is , both constructions were comparable 
in the extent to which they specified a corrective 
action and enforced compliance. (2) For both crew 
positions, the most effective strategies were neither 
too direct (i.e., commands) nor too indirect (i.e., 
permission requests). Captains judged first officers’ 
crew obligation statements, preference statements and 
hints to be more effective than their commands, self- 
directives and permission requests. First officers 
thought that captains were more effective when they 
used crew obligation statements rather than 
commands, queries, hints, self-directives and 
permission requests. (3) The judged effectiveness cf 
communication strategies varied with the level of risk 
inherent in a situation. In high-risk as compared to 


low-risk situations, the effectiveness rating of more 
direct communication strategies increased, while it 
decreased for less direct strategies. However, even in 
high-risk situations crew obligation statements were 
rated as more effective than commands. (4) Social 
implications of an incident also played a role in 
pilots’ effectiveness ratings. In particular, hints were 
judged to be more effective when used to correct 
highly embarrassing mistakes rather than minor 
errors. In high face-threat situations pilots rated this 
strategy most highly, together with crew obligation 
and preference statements. 

With the exception of commands, captains’ 
judgments corresponded reasonably well to the 
frequencies with which first officers in Study 1 used 
the various request strategies. Overall, a medium 
strong rank order correlation between captains’ 
effectiveness ratings and observed frequency of first 
officers’ strategies was observed (rho = .46). That is, 
hints, crew obligation and preference statements were 
both produced frequently by first officers and were 
judged by captains to be very effective. In contrast, 
first officers’ effectiveness ratings of captains’ 
strategies did not correlate as strongly with captains’ 
strategy use in Study 1 (rho = .30). The low 
correlation coefficient indicates a mismatch between 
first officers’ opinions about effective captain 
strategies and captains’ actual responses. Crew 
obligation statements, crew suggestions and 
preference statements, the top three captain strategies 
according to first officers, were rarely used by captains 
(4%, 17% and 6% of all captain requests, 

respectively). On the other hand, commands - 
captains’ dominant request strategy - received a 
considerably lower effectiveness rating. 

CONCLUSIONS 

Together, studies 1 and 2 suggest that the strategies 
pilots indicated they would use to mitigate pilot 
errors, may not be the most effective ones. While we 
obtained striking differences in captains’ and first 
officers’ communication strategies, there was 
considerable agreement between captains and first 
officers on what constitutes effective communication. 
Both pilot groups gave high effectiveness ratings to 
crew obligation statements, preference statements, 
crew suggestions and hints, and consistently rated 
commands, the most direct communication strategy, 
as less effective. The common element of these 
strategies is that they address a problem without 
disrupting the team context. Crew obligation 
statements, crew suggestions, and preference 
statements are like commands insofar as they 
explicitly state what should be done. But unlike 
commands they do not rely on status differences to 
assure compliance. Crew obligation statements seek 



compliance by appeal to a shared obligation. Crew 
suggestions and to some extent preference statements 
do so by referring to the solidarity between speaker 
and addressee. Hints are similar to crew obligation 
statements insofar as they too seek compliance by 
appeal to an external necessity. Many of the hints 
that first officers produced in Study 1 are problem or 
goal statements that strongly imply what action 
should be taken as for example “ Clearance was to 
90Q0\" ox “I show you 15 kts slow." That is, once 
the addressee acknowledges the problem, he is also 
committed to the appropriate action. 

Effective communication strategies thus appeal to 
a crew’s shared responsibility for coping with 
problem situations. This characteristic is again 
reflected in pilots’ judgments of complex 
communications. Requests and speaker-centered 
communications that were supported by problem or 
goal statements were rated as more effective than 
communications without supporting statements. The 
advantage of complex communications is that they 
may facilitate the crew’s shared understanding cf 
problem situations and their joint problem solving 
(Orasanu, 1994). Speakers who mention a problem 
in addition to requesting an action or stating their 
intention to act ensure that other crew members are 
able to see why a particular corrective action ought to 
be taken. Moreover, crew members are then in a 
position to verify for themselves that the speaker’s 
problem understanding is appropriate, and that the 
intended action is indeed the best response. 

REFERENCES 

Blum-Kulka, S. House, J. & Kasper, G. (Eds.). 
1989. Cross-cultural pragmatics: Requests and 

apologies. (Advances in Discourse Processes: Vol. 
31). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing. 


Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). 

Politeness: Some universals in language usage. 

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Jentsch, F., Martin, L. & Bowers, C. (1997). 
Identifying critical training needs for junior first 
officers. Special Technical Report submitted to 
Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems 
Division. May 12, 1997 

Linde, C. (1988). The quantitative study cf 
communicative success: Politeness and accidents in 
aviation discourse. Language in Society, 17, 375- 
399. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 
(1994). Safety study: A review of flightcrew- 

involved, major accidents of U.S. air carriers, 1978 
through 1990 (NTSB/SS-94/0 1 ). Washington DC: 
National Technical Information Service. 

Orasanu, J. (1994). Shared problem models and 
flight crew performance. In N. Johnston, N. 
McDonald, & R. Fuller (Eds.), Aviation psychology 
in practice, (pp. 255-285). Avebury Technical. 

Orasanu, J., & Fischer, U. (1992). Distributed 
cognition in the cockpit: Linguistic control of shared 
problem solving. In Proceedings of the Fourteenth 
Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 
(pp. 189-194). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 

We are grateful to the representatives of the 
participating airlines and their pilots who made this 
research possible. Special thanks go to Chritina van 
Aken and Deborah Stevenson for their help, patience 
and persistence in entering and coding the data. 



To appear in Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium on Aviation Psychology 

HOW TO CHALLENGE THE CAPTAIN'S ACTIONS 


Ute Fischer* 

Georgia Institute of Technology 


Judith Orasanu** 
NASA-Ames Research Center 


On January 13, 1982 an Air Florida Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac River due to 
excessive snow and ice on the airplane and a frozen indicator which gave the crew a false 
engine power reading. The aircraft had been de-iced, but 45 minutes had elapsed before it 
was cleared for takeoff. The captain had little experience flying in winter weather. While 
awaiting their takeoff clearance, the following conversation took place between the crew 
(NTSB, 1982): 

First Officer: Look how the ice is just hanging on his, ah, back, back there , see thatl 
(...) 

First Officer: See all those icicles on the back there and everything? 

Captain: Yeah. 

After a long wait following de-icing, the first officer continued: 

First Officer: Boy , this is a , this is a losing battle here on trying to de-ice those things, it 
(gives) you a false feeling of security, that's all that it does . 

Shortly after being given clearance to take off, the first officer again expressed his concern: 

First Officer: Let's check those tops again since we've been sitting here awhile. 

Captain: / think we get to go here in a minute. 

Finally, while they were on their takeoff roll, the first officer noticed that something was wrong with the 

engine readings. 

First Officer: That don't seem right, does it? [three second pause] Ah, that's not right . . 

Captain: Yes, it is, there's 80. 

First Officer: Naw, l don't think that's right, [seven-second pause] Ah, maybe it is. 

Captain: Hundred and twenty. 

First Officer: I don't know. 

The first officer’s references to “ice,” “icicles,” and “false sense of security” indicate 
that he was apparently quite aware of the dangerous weather conditions. Yet he did not 
succeed in getting the captain to take his concerns seriously or to act on them. Nor did he 
succeed in convincing the captain that there was something wrong with the engine power 

reading. . 

Why were the first officer’s communications unsuccessful? One possible reason might 
be that he used indirect speech. He only hinted at the possibility of a problem rather than 
stating explicitly what he suspected and what he thought should be done; nor did he 
challenge the captain’s decision to continue with the takeoff. There are two potential 
problems associated with indirect language use. (1) While direct, explicit utterances have 
only one meaning, indirect utterances have at least two: one meaning concerns what 
speakers explicitly say; the other concerns what they actually mean. Listeners thus have to 
infer what speakers mean from what is explicitly said (Searle, 1975), and they may err in 
this point. Most notably, listeners may not realize the indirectness of an utterance and may 
instead take an utterance at face value, thus misunderstanding what speakers intended. (2) 
Indirect speech is less forceful and more polite than direct speech. Listeners, on the other 
hand, may mistake politeness for indecisiveness and consequently may not take the implied 
intention seriously enough. This problem was prevalent in an analysis of crew discourse 
by Linde (1988) who observed that captains were less likely to act on first officers’ 
suggestions when they were indirect than when they were direct. 

From Linde’s (1988) observations we may be inclined to conclude that effective 
communication between crew members ought to be maximally explicit and direct. The 

* Work supported by NASA cooperative agreement No. NCC 2-933 

** Work supported by NASA, Code UL 


1 



demand for explicit and direct communication, however, underestimates the important role 
that social considerations play in interactions. As Watzlavick, Beavin and Jackson (1967) 
have pointed out, every utterance has two components: the referential which makes some 
predication about the world, and the relational, by which we signal something about our 
social relationship to the addressee. Communication is not just a matter of what we say; it 
is also how we say it that determines the received message. Moreover, whether or not we 
are successful in our communications depends critically on the extent to which we can 
accommodate both the referential and the relational component. This is particularly true in 
situations in which we place demands at our listeners, for instance when we want them to 
change their behavior. In these situations we want our listeners not only to understand our 
intentions but we also want them to act accordingly. How speakers can best assure listener 
cooperation varies with their relationship. Superiors, by virtue of their social status, may 
be licensed to give direct commands to their subordinates. However, if subordinates 
reverted to the same linguistic strategy, superiors may perceive them as threatening and 
may refuse compliance. To avoid this kind of confrontation, subordinates are likely to use 
more polite and as such more indirect ways of communicating (Brown & Levinson, 1987). 
However, as we elaborated above, by being indirect, subordinates run the risk of being 
misunderstood or of not being heard. 

There is thus a tension between informative communication and socially successful 
ways of communicating. We suggest that effective communication seeks to optimize 
informativeness and social appropriateness. How this can be achieved in crew discourse 
was the topic of our present research. In this research project we attempted to understand , 
how first officers could effectively challenge the actions of captains, and how first officers’ 
and captains’ strategies differ. In addition, we were interested in determining whether male 
and female pilots have distinct notions of what constitutes effective behavior in this context. 
Sociolinguistic studies on gender differences in discourse strategies have reported that men 
are more explicit, directive and task-oriented than women. Talk by women has been 
characterized as indirect and concerned with relational aspects of interactions (Lakoff, 

1975; Tannen, 1990, 1992). In this research we wanted to see whether these observations 
generalize to crew discourse. 


METHOD 

Participants 

Female pilots were recruited by placing a call for participation in the ISA newsletter. 21 
pilots responded to the ad and completed the experimental material. There were 10 captains 
and 1 1 first officers. The captains had on average 3.6 years in this position and had an 
average of 1 1 years of experience in Part 121 aircraft. For the first officers, position- 
specific experience was on average 6.3 years, and experience in Part 121 was 8.9 years. 

Male pilots matching the female sample in experience, were taken from a larger sample 
of 162 male respondents. The 10 male captains that were selected had on average 3.6 years 
of experience in this position and 14 years of experience in part 121. Position-specific 
experience and part 121 experience for first officers was on average 5.7 and 8.6 years, 
respectively. 

Material .... 

Eight short vignettes were constructed that described aviation incidents. These 
incidents varied in type and severity of a problem. For captain participants, incidents were 
described from the perspective of the captain and involved errors or oversights of the first 
officer, the pilot-flying. The reverse was true for first officer participants. The vignettes 
were printed in a test booklet, one vignette per page. There was a captain edition and a first 
officers’ edition. Random orders of the vignettes were created yielding 16 differently 
ordered captains’ and first officers’ booklets. 

Method and Procedure 


2 



Participants were asked to complete two tasks: a Discourse Completion Task and then 
a Judgment Task. In the Discourse Completion Task, participants received the incident 
descriptions and were asked to imagine themselves in the position of the captain (or first 
officer - dependent on the crew position of the participant). Each incident description was 
followed by a goal statement and the participants were asked to write out verbatim what 
they would say to the first officer (or the captain) in order to achieve the stated goal. For 
instance, captain participants saw the following description and goal statement: 

While cruising in IMC at FL 3 10, you notice on the weather radar an area of heavy precipitation 25 

miles ahead. First Officer Henry Jones, who is flying the aircraft, is maintaining his present course at 

Mach .73. 

You want to ensure that your aircraft will not penetrate this area. 

The second part of a test booklet consisted of a Judgment Task in which participants 
rated the scenarios along various scales, such as problem severity. Results from the 
judgment task will not be reported in this paper. 

Analyses 

Request types . Recall that each incident description was followed by a goal statement 
that should be realized by the participants’ communications. In coding the responses we 
therefore noted whether a speaker specified what action should be taken and whether the 
action is to be taken by him- or herself, the listener, or by the crew (Blum-Kulka, 1987; 
Clark, 1979). Responses were further classified based on the extent to which they 
committed the speaker, the listener or the crew to a particular action (Herrmann & 
Grabowski, 1994). For example, compare “ I’ll call ATC' with “Do you want me to call 
ATCV In the former utterance, the speaker expresses a strong commitment to calling ATC 
and virtually takes the listener’s acceptance for granted. Speaker commitment is much 
weaker in the latter utterance with which the speaker seeks the listener’s permission to call 
ATC. Similarly, “Turn left for the weather ” and ”Do you want to turn right or left around 
this weather!” place the listener under different obligations to comply with the speaker’s 
intentions. The major categories that we distinguished are summarized in Table 1 : 

TABLE 1 

Examples of Request Types 


Commands & Statements of Intent 
3rd Party Commands 

— Turn right back to the localizer. 

— I'll call ATC 

— He (= controller) wants us to turn left now. 

Suggestions 

— Let's correct back on course. 

Confirmation-Seeking Questions 

—Didn’t you want to fly at V-Ref plus 15 for 
winds? 

Permission Seeking Questions 

- Should I ask ATC if he’ll give us direct? 

Alerters 

-Watch your speed! 
- Altitude! 

Strong Hints 

Problem Statements & Problem 
Inquiries 

— We’re well left of course and there is parallel 
traffic. 

- Do you think they still want us on this heading? 

Goal Statements 

— We were assigned 9000 ft. 

Mild Hints 

Observations and Questions 

— Do we have anyone on the approach for the 
parallel runway? 


3 




Complexity of the communications . Participants could use either one or several 
utterances to achieve the goal that was stated after each incident description. If there were 
several utterances we noted their relationship. Typically one utterance was the principal 
part, or primary move, that realized the stated intention, and the other parts provided 
justification. Consider for example the following response: “We 've got parallel traffic off 
our left. Turn right heading xxx to intercept the localizer .” Here the goal of getting the 
aircraft back on the assigned approach course is realized by the command. The italicized 
segments provide reasons for the command and are thus supportive moves. We called 
responses involving primary and supportive moves, complex communications . A variation 
of complex responses consisted of several primary moves which together realized the stated 
intention but in which one also gave a rationale for the other. For example in “ What's your 
plan with regard to the weather? We should turn soon,” the second part not only constrains 
what should be done concerning the weather (= the goal) but also justifies why the question 
has been asked in the first place. Simple communications were responses in which a given 
goal was realized by a single utterance, i.e., a single primary move, as in “ Level off now!” 
or “ Would you like me to request direct ?” Alternatively, simple communications could also 
involve several primary moves which provided distinct directives, for example when 
speakers allocated responsibilities as in “ Level off here. I’ll call ATC.” 

RESULTS 

Reliability of coding . Two coders independently classified responses by 10 
participants. Percent agreement was calculated on their ratings and found to be 91 %. One 
coder subsequently classified the remaining responses. 

Do captains and first officers use different request types ? The answer to this question 
is yes. Captains used most frequently commands (37%), suggestions of the “Let’s type” 
(19%), or stated their intention to perform some action (14%). The majority of the 
intention statements, however, were combined with commands (e.g., “Climb immediately 
to 12,000. Then I’ll check our coursel”), or suggestions (e.g., “ Let’s climb back up to xxx 
feet. I’ll call ATC and let them know.”). First officers, in contrast, most commonly 
provided goal or problem statements (27%), or asked the captain whether he wanted them 
to perform some action (14%). A third request type observed for first officers were 
confirmation-seeking questions (13%) such as “Do you still want V-Ref + 15?” 

Do female and male pilots use different request types ? The answer to this question is 
no. Our analyses indicate that status rather than gender influenced how pilots phrased 
requests. 35% of female captains' requests were commands and 20% were suggestions; 
for male captains the corresponding percentages were 39 and 18. First officers were 
equally similar: 29% of the female and 25% of the male first officers' requests were 
problem and goal statements. For permission-seeking questions the percentages were 15% 
for the females and 14% for the males; for confirmation-seeking questions the percentages 
were 13% for both groups. 

Are there status and gender effects pertaining to the structure of the communications ? 
Gender but no status differences were observed in the way pilots structured their 
communications. A 2 x 2 between subjects analysis of variance on number of complex 
responses revealed that the structure of the communications varied significantly with the 
gender of the respondents, F( 1 ,38) = 7.9, p < .01), but not with their status, F(l,38) = 
1.48, ns.; nor was there a significant gender by status interaction, F(l,38) = 1.23, ns. 

As Table 2 shows, on average 5.3 (from a total of 8) responses by female pilots were 
complex, i.e., consisted of request and justifications as compared to 3.7 responses by male 
pilots. Since communications could either be complex or simple, this result also implies 
that female pilots were less likely than male pilots to state requests without also providing 
some justification. 


4 



TABLE 2 

Mean Number of Responses Involving Request plus Justification 


CAPTAINS 

FEMALE 

MALE 

6.00 ( 1 . 25 ) 

3.70 ( 2 . 45 ) 

FIRST OFFICERS 

4.64 ( 1 . 80 ) 

3.64 ( 1 . 91 ) 


Note . Standard Deviations are given in parentheses; Total Number of Responses per Group = 8 

DISCUSSION 

In this study we examined what linguistic strategies pilots use when they have to 
challenge the actions of a colleague, and how their communications balance the need for 
informativeness with the need for assuring the other’s cooperation. 

Two strategies emerged for captains. They either gave commands or they made 
suggestions that referred to actions of the crew. Both strategies explicitly state what action 
should be taken but they differ in their social implications. Commands are direct insofar as 
they entail a strong obligation for the listener to comply with the speaker’s request. 
Suggestions are less direct in this respect. However, by using the collegial “Let’s do,” 
speakers appeal to the solidarity between themselves and their listeners and seek 
compliance in this way. Commands, in contrast, are inherently authoritative and imply an 
asymmetry in status. Speakers by giving a command, express their belief that they are 
socially more powerful than their listeners and that they are thus licensed to command. 

That is, speakers seek listener compliance by appeal to their status. Status-based 
commands were more frequent among male captains than among female captains. Female 
captains instead were likely to shift the motivation for their commands away from their 
status to some objective necessity by referring to some problem or goal 

It remains to be seen, however, how captains’ strategies were affected by the severity 
of a problem situation. Results in a preliminary study involving only male participants, 
suggests that pilots increased the directness of their utterances in situations that they 
perceived to be risky (Fischer, 1996). Thus the observation that male captains used 
complex communications half of the time while female captains did so 75% of the time, 
could indicate that male captains were more likely than female captains to change their 
strategies with the severity of situations. 

Both male and female first officers in this study were less direct than captains. The 
most common strategy of first officers was to point to some problem or to remind the 
captain of a given goal. What corrective action should be taken and by whom was not 
explicitly stated but implied and left to the captain. In their other strategies, permission- 
seeking and confirmation-seeking questions, first officers were more explicit about a 
corrective action. In the first case, they volunteered to do some course of action but left the 
final decision to the captain. In the latter case, they inquired or confirmed whether the 
captain wanted some action. Although all three strategies seek the compliance of the 
listener by appeal to his authority, there are important differences: By asking permission- 
seeking and confirmation-seeking questions, first officers specify the action for which they 
want the captain’s compliance. Compliance, however, is not demanded but requested. By 
alerting to a problem or to a goal, in contrast, first officers seek the captain’s compliance 
only with their assessment of the situation but not with a particular course of action. That 
is, they place the captain under no explicit obligation to initiate a corrective action but do so 
only indirectly by assuming that a course of action is self-evident once the problem has 
been acknowledged. 


CONCLUSIONS 

In line with previous research (Linde, 1988; Orasanu & Fischer, 1992), we found that 
captains are more direct in their communications than first officers. But unlike previous 


5 




work on gender differences in communication strategies (Lakoff, 1975; Tannen, 1990, 
1992), we did not find that female pilots were more indirect than male pilots. In our study 
directness and indirectness were aligned with status not with gender. However, we did 
find gender differences among pilots with respect to the structure of their communications. 
Female pilots were more likely than male pilots to motivate their requests by referring to 
some objective need. 

One question that our present analyses have not yet addressed concerns the relation 
between linguistic strategy and features of the problem situation. In particular, we need to 
analyze whether our participants responded differently in low-risk and high-risk situations. 

REFERENCES 

Blum-Kulka, S. 1987. Indirectness and politeness in requests: same or different? 
Journal of Pragmatics, 11, 131-146. 

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language 
usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Clark, H. H. 1979. Responding to indirect speech acts. Cognitive Psychology, 11, 
430-477. 

Fischer, U (1996). Cultural variability in crew discourse. First year progress report. 
Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Herrmann, T., & Grabowski, J. (1994). Sprechen: Psychologie der Sprachpro- 
duktion. Heidelberg: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag GmbH. 

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and womens' place. New York: Harper and Row. 

Linde, C. (1988). The quantitative study of communicative success: Politeness and 
accidents in aviation discourse. Language in Society, 17, 375-399. 

National Transportation Safety Board (1982). Aircraft Accident Report: Air Florida, 
Inc., Boeing 737-222, N62AF, Collision with 14th Street Bridge, Near Washington 
National Airport, Washington, D. C., January 13, 1982 (NTSB-AAR-82-8). 

Washington, DC: Author. 

Orasanu, J., & Fischer, U. (1992). Distributed cognition in the cockpit: Linguistic 
control of shared problem solving. In Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Conference of 
the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 189-194). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Tannen, D. (1994). Gender and discourse. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Tannen, D. (1990). You just don't understand: Men and women in conversation. 

New York: Ballantine. 

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human 
communication. New York: Norton. 


Acknowledgments 

We would like to thank all the pilots who volunteered to participate in this study. We 
are also indebted to representatives from their airlines and from ISA for all their help and 
support. Thanks also go to Dave Austin, Don Bryant, Barry Crane, Key Dismukes, Jerry 
Jones, Corwin Logdson, Jim O'Neill, Mietek Steglinski, and Barbara Sweet who helped in 
pretesting the material; to Michael New who helped in the design of the scenarios, and to 
Christina VanAken for her invaluable assistance in coding the responses. 


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