"Cognitive lockup" in aviation - what causes it and how it can be detrimental


19 Apr 2022

Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was a scheduled flight from New York JFK to Miami. The flight was routine until the plane began its approach to Miami International Airport. Shortly before midnight on December 29, 1972, the Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar crashed into the Florida Everglades, causing 101 fatalities-only 75 survived.

Eastern Airline Lockheed L-1011 Tristar | Representative | Wikipedia

According to the final investigation report released by the NTSB, "the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground" was determined to be the probable cause of the crash.

Reportedly, during the turn of events, the flight crew failed to recognize the deactivation of the autopilot. Following a missed approach, because of a suspected nose gear malfunction, the aircraft climbed to 2,000ft MSL and proceeded on a westerly heading.

After the aircraft had descended 250 feet from the selected altitude of 2,000 feet, a C-chord sounded from the rear speaker. This altitude alert, designed to warn the pilots of an inadvertent deviation from the selected altitude, went unnoticed by the crew.


Flying over the darkened terrain of the Everglades, coupled with night-time flying conditions, made it impossible for the crew to realize the Tristar was actually descending.

Following this and many other accidents in the 1970s, many airlines started crew resource management training (CRM) for their pilots.

Cognitive Lockup

Cognitive skills are defined as brain-based skills needed in the acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning.

Representative | 2SER

The relation between planning and acting is key for cognitive science, as well as an important aspect of human-computer interaction. Cognitive psychology establishes the fact that sequences of actions are organised hierarchically by a mental planning process.

How does this play a role in aviation?

Human errors are an inevitable part of the action, something which we all are susceptible to. They become more significant when it occurs in high-performance environments like aviation, where the stakes are even higher. Thereby, it becomes crucial to understand why human errors in aviation are made andhow they can be mitigated.

Human Errors and Human Differences in Aviation | Representative | dentalimplantsurgery.com


"Cognitive Lockup", as defined by Moray and Rotenberg(1989), refers to the tendency of operators to deal with disturbances sequentially (regardless of the severity). In other words, you could be holding on to a specific task when other, more severe issues, could be attended to first. The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, is a prime example of this.

What do the statistics say?

According to figures, 48% of fatal accidents and onboard fatalities, between 1959 and 2016 (Boeing, 2017), occurred during the final approach and landing.

Approximately 65% of all accidents take place during critical phase(s) of flight- take-off/landing | Representative | 123RF

IATA publication data from 2011-2015 shows that approximately 65% of all recorded accidents occurred in the approach and landing phase of the flight, and unstabilised approaches were identified as a factor in 14% of these approach and landing accidents.

Representative | ISASI.org

Representative | ISASI.org

Probable causes of cognitive lockup

According to Goleman (1995), when the brain receives information, stimulus travels totwo places in the brain from the thalamus: the amygdala and the neocortex. The neocortex represents the thinking part of the brain, while the amygdala processes physiological responses and fight orflight information.

Representative | District 105

If the emotional brain does not like what it is seeing, it will declare an emotional emergency, an amygdala hijack. Most individuals can only be effective when both the emotional and thinking brain work together.Goleman, 1998

Representative | Supari.In

When people switch between tasks, the mental reconfiguration to another task takes time- also called the "switching cost". Cognitive lockup is reduced when it is obvious that the benefits of a switch exceed the switching cost. This goes to show that the decision to switch or not to switch may be influenced by a misperception of the expected benefits.

Furthermore, if an individual feels that the ongoing task is almost complete, they are more likely to stick to the ongoing task even if the new task is comparatively more significant.

Typically, there are two types of pressure on pilots:

Time pressureTask pressure

Time pressure, being a function of the number of tasks to be performed in a given period, becomes high when there is a perception that time might be scarce.

People experience time pressure when 70% or more of the available time is required for the taskBeevis 1999

The primary task of pilots is getting the passengers from point A to point B. Understandably, they are focused more on completing the task within the stipulated time frame and additional manoeuvres like a go-around or a diversion, although critical from a safety standpoint, may sometimes be overlooked by the crew- Task pressure being a case in point.

Representative | The Independent

People have the tendency to stick to their current task when 90% or more of their total stages of a task have been completedBoehne and Pease, 2000; Garland and Colon, 1993

Thereby, it can be safely said that there is an interaction effect between task completion and time pressure on cognitive lockup.

How does this translate to aviation?

The effects of cognitive lockup are more profound when a pilot approaches the destination. The pilot by now has effectively invested a lot of time in almost completing the task of reaching the destination. In such instances, the pilot might continue with landing, despite, let's say-encountering an unstable approach on landing. Performing a go-around could be perceived in a negative light and hence the pilot might stick to the first task- landing on time at the destination.

An aircraft on final approach | Representative | Wikipedia

Cognitive lockout is the primary reason for the reluctance to go around.

Possible solution(s)

Appropriate training can have a profound effect on reducing cognitive lockup by increasing the practice of "task switching", as compared to other tasks.

Representative | TU Delta- TU Delft

Additionally, the following could be implemented:

Decision support tools:  Tools that assist pilots in recognising the relative priorities of tasks, thereby reducing the likelihood of cognitive lockupSimulator training: Pilots could be trained in scenarios where new, more urgent, tasks arise when dealing with an existing task and could reinforce awareness of the need to continuously assess and prioritise tasks.


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Air India cancels flights to Hong Kong amid Covid spike

Radhika Bansal

18 Apr 2022

Air India has cancelled flights to Hong Kong between April 18-April 23, 2022, due to restrictions imposed by the Hong Kong authorities and limited demand in the sector, as per an update shared by the airline on Twitter.

Earlier, Hong Kong had banned Air India services till April 24 after three passengers on one of its flights tested positive for COVID-19 post-arrival on Saturday, April 16 a senior government official had said.

Passengers from India can arrive in Hong Kong only if they have a COVID-19 negative certificate from a test done 48 hours before the journey, according to rules issued by the Hong Kong government, said the official on Sunday, April 17.


“The three passengers on Air India’s AI316 Delhi-Kolkata-Hong Kong flight on April 16 tested positive for COVID-19 post-arrival,” the official said.

All international passengers are required to take a post-flight COVID-19 test at the airport premises in Hong Kong. Air India flights from New Delhi and Kolkata have been banned till April 24 by the Hong Kong government, the official added.

“A lady passenger who was negative before departure had tested positive for Covid-19 after arrival. As a result of which the lady’s husband and a fellow passenger were immediately quarantined,” another airline official said, declining to be named.

Air India cancels flights to Hong Kong amid Covid spike

“Apart from Air India, one flight each of All Nippon Airways, Turkish Airlines, Japan Airlines, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines have been restricted to fly to Hong Kong for a week,” the second official said. “Cathay Pacific’s two flights have been restricted.”

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It is not the first time airline firms are facing such an issue. In January, Hong Kong had announced a two-week ban on incoming flights from eight countries due to the surge in the Omicron, which included India.

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DGCA lays down roles and responsibilities to improve flight safety

Radhika Bansal

18 Apr 2022

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has laid down roles and responsibilities for airlines as part of its surveillance programme to strengthen flight safety, and warned of strict actions in case of non-compliance, people familiar with the development said.

The aviation regulator has also asked the airlines to take immediate and strict action in case an issue is pointed out to them.

“Flight safety is a serious business and it requires a systematic approach towards safety management. It has to be collaborative and correctional. The organised response lays down roles and responsibilities of all concerned, which, if not discharged appropriately entails enforcement actions.A robust safety management system is a sine qua non (essential condition) for every entity working in aviation. It identifies key safety priorities, indicators and risks and their resolution through appropriate mitigation measures."Arun Kumar, Director General, DGCA

The direction comes as the DGCA has made a detailed surveillance programme focusing on passengers’ safety. Organisations such as scheduled airlines, non-scheduled operators, aircraft maintenance firms, design and manufacturing organisations, flying training institutes, and maintenance training institutes have been included in the programme.

Explaining the procedure, the aviation regulator said any significant non-compliance of safety standards — which lowers the safety standard and affects seriously the flight safety — identified during surveillance should be addressed immediately and intimated to the DGCA.

DGCA lays down roles and responsibilities to improve flight safety

Once intimated, the DGCA office will then verify compliance action to ensure that the safety hazard has been resolved.

However, in some cases, such resolutions may take time. “In such cases, DGCA office may allow the resolution of the level 1 finding for a period not exceeding seven days provided that the immediate safety risk has been adequately mitigated,” a DGCA circular, dated April 15, read.

DGCA said that findings related to non-compliance that could lower the safety standard and possibly hazard the flight safety must be resolved within a short time not exceeding 30 days after a review of the submitted targeted corrective action plan.

“The observations shall be intimated to the approved organisations in the form of Deficiency Reporting Forms (DRF), which has been standardised,” the circular stated.

Arun Kumar, Director General, DGCA

Kumar said, “Continuous monitoring of risk mitigation measures to ensure that they remain relevant is incumbent on all concerned.”

The DGCA has asked all organisations to take prompt action of resolving the non-conformities brought out during the surveillance inspection, spot checks or safety audits conducted by them. It also said that the organisation will define a corrective action plan and demonstrate corrective action to the satisfaction of the DGCA within a period depending upon the level of the finding.

“Where no reasonable and justified reasons are assigned for non-implementation of the corrective action plan within the time frame... necessary enforcement action will be initiated against the organisation or the person responsible for non-compliance as the case may be,” the circular added.

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China Eastern Airlines starts putting B737-800 aircraft back into operations

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18 Apr 2022

China Eastern Airlines has started putting its Boeing 737-800 jetliners back in use for commercial flights less than a month since a crash killed 132 people and led the company to ground 223 of the aircraft, the carrier said on Sunday, April 17.

The airline said it had conducted systematic tests, structural checkups and verified airworthiness data for each of the aircraft, and that test flights would be carried out on all planes before they resumed commercial services.

Boeing 737-800 planes with registration numbers close to the one that crashed on March 21 are still undergoing maintenance checks and evaluation, the company told Reuters in a statement.

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Flightradar24 data showed earlier in the day that China Eastern flight MU5843, operated by a three-year-old Boeing 737-800 aircraft, took off from the southwestern city of Kunming at 09:58 AM (0158 GMT) on Sunday, April 17 and landed at 11:03 AM in Chengdu, also in southwestern China.

That aircraft, which completed a test flight on Saturday, April 16 later returned to Kunming, according to Flightradar24. Another Boeing 737-800 jet conducted a test flight early on Sunday, April 17 in Shanghai, where China Eastern is based.

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On March 21, flight MU5735, which was en route from Kunming to Guangzhou, crashed in the mountains of Guangxi and killed 123 passengers and nine crew members in mainland China's deadliest aviation disaster in 28 years.

The airline said it had conducted systematic tests, structural checkups and verified airworthiness data for each of the aircraft

China has retrieved both of the black boxes and said it would submit a preliminary report to the U.N. aviation agency ICAO within 30 days of the event.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had announced that a team of US investigators had departed for China to probe the causes of an airliner crash that killed all 132 people on a Boeing 737-800 operated by China Eastern Airlines on March 21.

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Rumours have been doing rounds online that the co-pilot “might be responsible” for the crash, attributing it to the data from black boxes, with some believing that the CAAC will require flight crews to undergo mental health monitoring, the state-run Global Times reported.

China’s civil aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), refuted such rumours over the co-pilot’s involvement in the crash of China Eastern flight MU5375, saying the accident is still under investigation, and no conclusions have been drawn on the cause and nature of the accident yet.

The “rumours”, claimed to be sourced from some public security departments are misleading, would undermine public confidence in the ongoing investigation, and may represent a violation of the law, said Wu Shijie, a CAAC official told the official media.

(With Inputs from Reuters)

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Air India employees plan to go to the Bombay HC to protest eviction from staff quarters

Radhika Bansal

18 Apr 2022

Air India employees plan to approach the Bombay High Court and the Maharashtra government to protest possible eviction from staff quarters in Mumbai.

Employees took the call at a protest meeting on Sunday, April 17 which was attended by Shiv Sena MP Gajanan Kirtikar and NCP leader Vidya Chavan.

In October 2021, the airline issued notices to 1200 Air India employees to give an undertaking that they would vacate their staff quarters in the Kalina area of Mumbai within six months of disinvestment.

Air India employees plan to go to the Bombay HC to protest eviction from staff quarters

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Employee unions protested the move and served a strike notice. The issue is now pending before the labour commissioner's office which initiated a conciliation process.

"We have consulted our lawyers. After the close of conciliation proceedings we will move Bombay High Court. We feel we will get relief from the court.Air India's four staff colonies in Kalina, spread over 310 acres have a total of 1600 flats that house Air India engineers, ground staff and employees, who are allocated the staff quarters in lieu of HRA.About 80% of employees in these staff quarters are those working with Air India's ground handling and engineering companies, both of which are still government-owned companies."George Abraham, General Secretary, Aviation Industry Employees Guild

Kirtikar said Shiv Sena will support the Air India employees and stage protests to protect their homes.

Abraham alleged that the airline has tried to pressurize the employees to give an undertaking by withholding their arrears. He also pointed out that the Air India colony also houses employees from ground handing and engineering companies which have not been privatised.

Air India colony also houses employees from ground handing and engineering companies which have not been privatised.

The employees have demanded that they should be allowed to live in the quarters till their retirement. The first of the quarters was constructed by Air India in 1955.

The land on which these colonies stand belongs to the state government, which leased it to the government-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI) and thereafter to Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL), currently under the Adani Group of Companies.

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Can an auditor be in command of the aircraft accident bureau?

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18 Apr 2022

In a move that has raised eyebrows, an officer from the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IA&AS) with no technical expertise in aviation has been appointed director general of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB).

According to a report published in The Times of India, Puja Singh Mandol also holds the post of joint director general, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), where she handles administrative duties.

Can an auditor be in command of the aircraft accident bureau?

A source said Mandol’s appointment as AAIB director general is a stop-gap measure till the post gets filled. The post was, until a couple of months ago, held by Group Captain Aurobindo Handa.

Capt Amit Singh, an air safety expert, said, “The appointment may be temporary, but the question is can she undertake the jobs and responsibilities that come with heading the accident investigation bureau for that period of time? For instance, final reports into accidents and incidents, documents highly technical in nature, are submitted to the director general for acceptance.”Capt Amit Singh, Air Safety Expert

The ministry of civil aviation was not reachable for comment.

The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) is a division of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India which investigates aircraft accidents and incidents in India.

Former Indian Airlines director, flight safety, Capt S S Panesar, said, “It is unsafe even if it is for a short period, as an incident or accident can take place any time. The onus of ordering an investigation and overseeing it would then fall on the inexperienced official…The current practice of deputing cadre from DGCA to AAIB and especially the head of the AAIB not being technically qualified not only is a conflict of interest but is demoralizing for the industry.” Capt S S Panesar, Former Director (Flight Safety), Indian Airlines

The agency was established by an order on May 26, 2011. The Aircraft (Investigation of Accidents and Incidents) Rules, 2012 came into effect on July 5, 2012. It provides for the setting up of an Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau.

AAIB, India has carried out more than 150 Accident and Incident investigations so far including a major accident in 2020 of Air India Express Flight 1344.

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(With Inputs from The Time of India)