Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 17:21 UK

Politics of the airline cockpit

Flight cockpit
Airline cockpit: A haven of harmony or a den of dispute?

The crew of a Northwest Airlines plane blamed being distracted by a "heated discussion" for missing by 150 miles (240km) the airport they were meant to land at. So how common are tensions in the cockpit, and what do you do if you fall out with your colleagues at 35,000ft? Penny Spiller reports.

Imagine being stuck with one or two colleagues in a space not much bigger than a broom cupboard for 10 hours on end.

You are busy at the start and the end of your shift, but the intervening hours are a little more relaxed. It's a good time for a chat if you get on with your workmates. But what if you don't?

Earlier this month, a scuffle was reported to have broken out between the pilots and cabin crew of an Air India flight.

We found that, as a group, [pilots] aren't particularly stressed. They tend to be very good at dealing with crises
Prof Cary Cooper
Organisational psychologist

A row over allegations of sexual harassment was said to have spilled into the galley, startling the 106 passengers on the flight from the United Arab Emirates to Delhi. The airline said it would investigate.

The crew of the Northwest Airlines flight between San Diego and Minneapolis said they had been having a heated discussion over airline policy, although an investigation will also look into reports that they may have fallen asleep.

Thankfully, such incidents are rare.

Eric Moody was an airline pilot for 33 years and said he hardly ever heard talk of tensions on the flight deck, or of crew members refusing to work together.

"We used to call it airmanship," the former British Airways pilot told the BBC News website. "I like to think that any disputes were sorted out with mutual respect and understanding."

Strong personalities

Mr Moody remembers that being a first officer - or co-pilot to the captain - required some of the skills of a diplomat.

"The ultimate decision a first officer has to make is whether or not to take control of the plane from the captain," he said. "That's not a decision you would take lightly, especially as it most likely means you would be flying the plane on your own.

"There were times as a first officer, when I would sit there, watching the captain and think, 'I wouldn't do it like that'," he recalls. "But more often than not, he was right and I was wrong."

Airlines taking the issue of staff communication very seriously

Did he ever have to take charge of the plane? "No, I found I could always suggest things in such a way that it was received positively."

On the face of it, though, the potential for inter-personal fireworks on the flight deck would appear to be pretty high.

Flying tends to attract strong characters; people who like to be in control, says Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.

But rather than add to the stresses, having a strong personality in the cockpit might actually ease the pressures, he found in a study carried out on airline pilots a decade ago.

"We found that, as a group, they aren't particularly stressed," he said. "They tend to be very good at dealing with crises, and coping with stress."


This means that, although the relationship with their crew is high on the list of potential stresses for pilots, their ability to cope stops it becoming an issue.

But harmonious relationships between pilots and crew are vital for a successful flight.

Research by Nasa in the late 1970s found that human error was to blame for the majority of aviation accidents - the key problems being a breakdown in communication, leadership and decision-making in the cockpit.

They came up with a training programme called Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), which has since been taken on and adapted by the aviation industry.

Among other things, CRM encourages crew members to act if they see the captain or co-pilots making a dangerous decision, and teaches them to leave their personal differences at the door of the plane.

Another factor that aids on-board harmony is that the staffing for flights tends to be chosen in a random way. This lessens the likelihood of enmity - as well as close friendships - building between colleagues.

But what if all that time spent cooped up with your irritating colleague becomes simply too much?

Cary Cooper offers this advice. "Stay professional. Don't allow it to get personal. And if it is really bad, make sure you don't have to work with that person again."

Print Sponsor

'Distracted' pilots fail to land
23 Oct 09 |  Americas
India pilots in mid-air 'scuffle'
04 Oct 09 |  South Asia
Air India speaks on cabin scuffle
06 Oct 09 |  South Asia

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific