Which factors contribute to situational awareness?

Situation awareness

The term situation awareness describes the awareness of the pilot or the cockpit crew members for their environment, its importance and a possible future development of this environment. The knowledge about this should be used to react correctly and to take correct actions. Situation awareness describes the ability to maintain an overview and to understand the seriousness of the situation, especially in critical and dangerous situations.


Put simply, situational awareness means the knowledge that a pilot needs to have in order to perform all tasks during the flight - flying, controlling or maintaining the aircraft. More precisely, in the context of the complex operating environment, situation awareness describes a person's knowledge of certain task-relevant events and phenomena. For example, for a fighter pilot, situational awareness means knowing the threat and intentions of the enemy, as well as the status of his own aircraft. For an air traffic controller, being aware of the situation means that he has an overview of the location of a certain aircraft and that he can predict the future position so that he can recognize potential conflicts. Operationally, situation awareness means knowing the current state and dynamics of a system and being able to anticipate future changes and developments.
In general, situational awareness is the perception of the elements of the environment in a room within a certain period of time, an understanding of their importance as well as the forecast of their status in the near future. In addition, the definition has been expanded to include additional elements:

  • Obtain information from the area
  • Integrate this information with the relevant internal knowledge in order to create a mental picture of the situation
  • Link this image with a continuous cycle of perception
  • Foresee future events.


For a pilot, situational awareness means having a mental picture that the position, flight conditions, configuration and energy status of the aircraft are in an interdependent relationship. Other factors that could affect flight safety, such as nearby terrain, obstacles, airspace reservations and weather systems, should also be taken into account. The possible consequences of insufficient situational awareness are controlled flight off-road, loss of control, airspace violation, loss of separation, getting into wake turbulence, severe turbulence, severe icing or unexpectedly strong headwind.

For an air traffic controller, situational awareness means acquiring and maintaining an idea of ​​the traffic situation and being aware of the potential for unexpected developments or changes in this scenario.

In aviation, there has been a growing interest in understanding how pilots keep track of the many complex and dynamic events that can occur simultaneously in flight and how this information was used for future action. The interest increased especially in connection with the large amount of sensor information in the cockpit combined with the new role of the cockpit crew as an observer of the automatic flight control. The term situation awareness was chosen to describe the processes of attention, perception and decision-making that together form a pilot's mental model of the current situation. Today situational awareness is one of the most prominent research topics in aviation in the area of ​​human factor.

Situation awareness is an important part in the decision-making process. It is important to have a complete idea of ​​what is happening in order to make the best possible decision every time.

Situation awareness is so important that much of the work environment of pilots and air traffic controllers is designed to be preserved. For air traffic controllers, this means communication with airplanes and other air traffic controllers, as well as radar and associated services. For pilots, this includes communicating with air traffic controllers, tracking air traffic controllers' communications with other aircraft, visual observation, navigation and flight safety nets.

Loss of situational awareness can lead to serious accidents. Typical scenarios can be:

  • A pilot is given clearance to land in an airport that is unknown to him. He chooses to fly by visual references rather than making an instrument approach because he can see the runway. The result can be a controlled approach to the terrain.
  • The pilot does not know about the airspace reservation for another aircraft and enters the airspace, so that the minimum separation is not adhered to.
  • The pilot misunderstands a release and does not read it back. This is also overlooked by the air traffic controller and the aircraft climbs onto a flight level for which it has no clearance.
  • The air traffic controller overlooks the presence of an aircraft on approach and gives clearance to enter the runway.
  • The air traffic controller releases an altitude for an aircraft, but at which it will be in conflict with another aircraft. Communication with the second aircraft is in the local language. Communication with the first is in English so that the crew does not notice the air traffic controller's mistake.

Situation awareness model

According to a model by Mica Endsley, there are three levels of situational awareness.

Perception of the elements in the current situation
The first step in becoming aware of the situation is to perceive the state, properties and dynamics of the elements in the environment. The pilot must carefully observe the information about his aircraft and its systems (speed, position, altitude, route, flight direction, etc.) as well as the weather, air traffic control clearances, emergency reports and other relevant elements. This means that it is necessary to collect all the information that is available at the moment. For example, the pilot needs to get information from a variety of sources, including inside the aircraft (instruments, fuel data, engine health) and outside (other aircraft, weather, navigation).

Understanding the current situation
Understanding the state of affairs implies a synthesis of unrelated elements of the first stage. The second level of situational awareness goes beyond simply perceiving the elements and includes understanding the meaning of these indicators in relation to the pilot's objectives. Based on the knowledge of these elements, especially if they are linked with other elements to form patterns, a holistic picture of the environment can be created, including the sensitivity for the meaning of the information and events. This means that with information obtained in the first step, a mental picture of the current situation is formed.

Forecast of the future situation
It is the ability to predict the future behavior of the elements in the environment, at least in the short term. This is the third and highest level of situational awareness. It is achieved through knowledge of the state and dynamics of the elements, as well as understanding the situation (both in the first and second stages). The pilot needs to be able to predict what will happen next and make a decision with that knowledge. For example, you have to follow a certain direction of flight to avoid other aircraft, or you have to land at the nearest airport to refuel in order to reach the destination.

Contributing causes

System design - the ergonomics of the system is very important. If the information is presented in a user-friendly way, it will be much easier to extract the data you need.
Stress and workload - Stress has a negative effect on the ability to process information. In a stressful situation one is not able to process as much information as in a relaxed environment. Since it severely affects situational awareness, it is very important to be able to deal with stress in the short and long term.
Automatic - Automatic systems of the aircraft must be constantly monitored. For example, activating the autopilot does not mean that one should pay attention to secondary activities. The controls and instruments must continue to be actively monitored. Automatic can also be used when the workload is high, in order to avoid mental overload, as the pilot no longer has to control the aircraft himself.
Physiological factors - Illnesses or medication can have a drastic effect on information processing and thus on situational awareness. Models and methods exist for monitoring the health of pilots.
Fixed ideas - often, when one has a fixed idea of ​​a process and its consequences, one tries to adapt the information to this idea instead of seeing what really happens.
Skills, experience and training - if you have trained a situation many times, it is more likely to make the right decision in the same situation in reality. Repeated training is more likely to respond quickly. Therefore, situations such as stall or engine failure are practiced in flight training.

Team situation awareness

For safe and efficient aviation operations, all flight crew members must act together. The key component to achieving this is a high level of common situational awareness in the team.

Team situational awareness can be defined as the degree to which each of the team members has the situational awareness required for their tasks.

However, the success of the team depends not only on each member being aware of the situation, but also on everyone having the same idea of ​​the situation. It is always possible that with different levels of experience and crew functions, the members of the cockpit also have different levels of situational awareness. However, if one person does not have the least bit of situational awareness, the entire team will not be successful. In aviation, this can lead to an incident or accident.

Each member of the team has a task or a sub-goal. Every team member needs to communicate with others for the team to be successful as all goals need to be coordinated with each other. A lot of research has gone into finding the best way to coordinate a team in this regard. This research area is also known as crew resource management. Each crew member has a clear task, for example one pilot controls the aircraft, the other goes through the checklists, conducts radio calls and monitors the system. There are also overlapping tasks, for example both pilots have to keep an active view of other aircraft. Both pilots have to communicate with each other, otherwise they will not have enough information to maintain their situational awareness and achieve their sub-goals.
The performance of the entire team will suffer if information is not shared between team members. The focus should not be on the quantity, but on the quality of the information and its transmission. Crew Resource Management therefore focuses on improving team members' communication skills and relationships so that understanding becomes a natural process for new crew members.
Crew briefing is a good tool to get an initial idea of ​​what will happen later in the flight. This sets common goals and expectations for the team. This increases the likelihood of better situational awareness and helps to communicate more effectively, as fewer discussions will arise with each event.
Planning in advance is a way to discuss questions and suggestions before your flight. If the crew has all the necessary information and a well-designed plan, they will be better able to think ahead and deal with abnormal situations.
Good manners in the team also contribute significantly to open communication. Individual members will also be better able to predict each other's actions and reactions.


With complacency, a state of self-confidence in one's own performance is paired with ignorance about dangers, problems or conflicts. The use of this term is sometimes controversial in the aviation industry.
Most of the criticism of the term refers to the lack of a precise definition of the appearance. It is a subject that has not yet been adequately conceived. The following terms can sometimes be used synonymously with compliance:

  • Excessive confidence
  • Complacency
  • Properties and characteristics that can lead to a reduced awareness of hazards
  • State of trust and satisfaction
  • Low sensitivity to suspicion
  • Incorrect assumption of a satisfactory state of the system
  • Loss of situational awareness and insufficient preparation to react in a timely manner in the event of a system failure.

The state of self-confidence and self-satisfaction can arise in different situations.
After a period of intense mental work and heavy workload. If the work continues with little psychological stress, an illusion can arise that “the worst” is over. The tasks seem trivial and vigilance decreases. In this state, some details can be forgotten and the crew members are not able to react appropriately to new and unexpected incidents. For example, after a long-haul flight in bad weather conditions, the pilot feels too safe when landing in good weather conditions and with good visibility and performs a belly landing.
Management also plays a big role in what work ethic employees have. If mediocre performance or poor work ethics are tolerated in the company, employees can tend to break rules or omit parts of the task as they do not have to fear any punishment. This way of working is now becoming a norm.
The work of many actors in the aviation industry (especially pilots and air traffic controllers) is associated with exceptionally high levels of stress. Confronted with tiredness and stress from external factors, the employees are not in the right frame of mind for their tasks. You don't work meticulously enough and don't pay as much attention to seemingly mundane tasks. They can begin to hear and see what to expect in a given situation and not what is actually happening. Too much trust in the automatic system and in the fact that a certain task has been performed correctly over a longer period of time can lead to the false assumption that no more mistakes can happen.
The following circumstances can indicate a risk of compliance:

  • Acceptance of low standards of job performance
  • Reduce the feeling of remaining knowledgeable and competent at work
  • Increased feeling of blandness and inattentiveness
  • Acceptance and satisfaction with current conditions at work
  • Increased sense of well-being also when the number of tasks increases
  • Neglecting important safety regulations

The following measures are useful to combat complacency at work:

  • Staying aware of your surroundings by going through the possible consequences of complacency.
  • Observing the situation, the environment and all related events can provide information on how mistakes can be avoided in the future.
  • Positive attitude towards work, increasing professional competence.
  • Repeating the emergency checklists to avoid seeing and hearing what is not reality but what is expected.
  • Practicing a worst-case scenario.
  • Continuous further education, training and updating of acquired knowledge and skills.
  • Practice of different situations and scenarios.
  • Accepting and creating new challenges.
  • Critical questioning of your own performance.
  • Good physical fitness to better deal with stress.

See also