Expectation Bias in Aviation

February, 25, 2022 by

Expectation bias can cause serious problems in aviation, but what is it?

Expectation bias, as defined by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), is defined as a psychological concept associated with perception and decision making that can allow a mistaken assessment to take place and persist. Essentially, you hear or see something you expect instead of what is actually happening.

Here is a possible example of Expectation bias where it could cause serious issues:
A pilot has flown into an airport regularly and has always been cleared to cross a particular runway. That pilot may come to expect the crossing clearance. One day, the pilot is told to hold short of the runway. If the pilot is not fully aware of their situation, they may cross the runway anyway because they expected a crossing clearance. This could easily cause a potentially dangerous situation if someone was landing or departing on that runway at that moment, etc.

Expectation bias has had a hand in several aviation incidents around the world over time. In 2008, a Spanair MD82 crashed shortly after takeoff due to the flaps not being properly configured for takeoff. In the incident report, it was discovered that the flight crew had called out “flaps 11” multiple times without actually checking that the flaps lever was on flaps 11. Because the crew expected the plane to be configured correctly, they didn’t bother looking at the instruments.

Expectation bias played a hand in another incident in 2017. An Air Canada A320 nearly landed on Taxiway C (Charlie) at San Francisco International Airport (KSFO). Runway 28L had its lights turned off as it was closed at the time, and flight 759 was cleared to land 28R. This particular flight crew had flown into SFO many times at night when 28L was in operation. They lined up on the taxiway adjacent to 28R because they believed runway 28R was 28L (the crew saw 2 rows of lights and lined up with the ones on the right side). Fortunately, this mistake was noticed just in time to avoid a deadly accident from occurring.

So, how can we limit expectation bias from occurring?

According to the FAA Safety Team, pilots need to understand expectation bias and how it can affect flight safety. Pilots should “focus on listening, repeat to yourself the information, and question it.” Does the clearance makes sense, and if it doesn’t, ask for clarification.

How can we apply this to Infinite Flight?
Although this is mostly relevant to real world flying, we can take some of what we learned and apply it to Infinite Flight as well. If Infinite Flight pilots take the same steps of paying close attention to ATC instructions, it would ensure a better experience for all. On the flip side, controllers can double check to make sure correct instructions and clearances are sent. This combination of ATC and pilot awareness is essential for the best possible experience flying the virtual skies.

Resources: skybrary.aero, NTSB (AC759 incident report)

IF787 is a contributor for the IFATC Education Group. He is an IFATC Supervisor and a real-world private pilot.