Part 2: Reading comprehension

Part 2: Reading comprehension

Read the following incident reports relating to technical problems in aircraft and then answer the questions which follow.

Human Factors in Aviation

Contrary to popular belief, technical problems do not cause most accidents in aviation. More than 60% of accidents in aviation are caused by human error. In other words, either the pilot did something he shouldn’t do or didn’t do something he should have done.

Across the world, in Europe, the US and Australia multidisciplinary teams of researchers, made up of doctors, ergonomists and psychologists are analysing accident reports looking out for evidence of problems linked to authority and decision making in the cockpit, signs of fatigue, errors in programming the on-board computers, etc.

Major air crashes are always headline news and always increase public anxiety about air travel and safety. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that air travel is far safer than it was in, say, the 1960s when there were thirty times more accidents. So why is human error so common? Although performance levels throughout the aviation industry have improved dramatically, it’s an industry which has become much more complex, from the aircraft themselves, to the airports they fly to and from and the routes they use. For example, Singapore Airlines have asked five different European research teams to study the effects of fatigue on its new non-stop Singapore – Los Angeles route – a flight which takes almost 20 hours.

According to the experts, human error is inevitable and 70% of the time, the pilot realises that he or she has made a mistake and corrects it. On-board systems will correct almost all of the remaining 30%. The important thing to find out how and why a tiny number of cases slip through these systems, sometimes with catastrophic results.

Human factors specialists are particularly interested in those cases in which a new type of pilot error is detected. Just such a case was that of the Boeing 707 belonging to the Colombian carrier Avianca which ran out of fuel and crashed 26km from its destination, JFK airport in New York. Seven minutes before the crash the captain asked his co-pilot to confirm that he had told air traffic control that they had no more fuel. The co-pilot, who spoke excellent English, had indeed done so but without using the appropriate emergency terms. The American air traffic controllers had therefore underestimated the urgency of the situation, in part because they had overestimated the co-pilot’s English language skills.


  1. Why is the figure of 60% mentioned at the beginning of this article?
  2. What different types of specialist are involved in the international teams analysing aviation accident reports?
  3. How does air travel today compare to air travel in the 1960s in terms of safety?
  4. What developments in air travel since the 1960s might explain why human error is still relatively common in aviation?
  5. What have Singapore Airlines asked researchers to study?
  6. What are researchers most interested in understanding when they study cases of human error in aviation.
  7. What was found to be the cause of the Avianca Boeing 707 mentioned in the last paragraph.
  8. How did human factors contribute to this accident?

Vocabulary building

Find words or phrases underlined in the article which mean the same as:

  1. Unavoidable
  2. Enormously
  3. Had thought it was better than was the case
  4. Tiredness
  5. Despite what many people think
  6. Frequent
  7. Which are not detected
  8. Considerably, much (more), a lot