What Technical Communicators Can Learn from the Airline Industry

The higher the risk, the more you need good documentation. In perhaps no industry is this more true than in the airline industry.

Early on in the industry, pilots were held to be remarkably smart people. Part of the aura of a pilot was that they were expected to be able to hold any needed flying or plane maintenance procedures in their heads.This tradition grew up as a result of the example of the first pilots. The Wright Brothers performed extensive checks on their aircraft, and were intimately familiar with all aspects of their equipment. However, the Wrights’ machines were comparatively simple. As aircraft grew more and more complex, pilots were expected to store and execute more and more, and increasingly complex, procedures. 

That all changed in 1935. Two pilots for an important Boeing Model 299 test flight neglected to check one piece of equipment. Essentially, they forgot to check a single box in their mental checklist. This resulted in the malfunction of a key control mechanism, and a fiery crash.

In the wake of the crash, the industry realized that expecting pilots to remember many complex procedures was asking for trouble. The stakes were just too high.

Airlines, and the Air Force, developed detailed, written checklists for a variety of piloting and maintenance tasks. These checklists reduced risks by ensuring that pilots’ memories were not overtaxed. As Air Force Magazine points out, a checklist is an “informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention.”

Moviegoers were treated to a great example of these checklists (collected in a QRH, or Quick Reference Handbook) in the 2016 movie Sully, which detailed the miraculous landing of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. As you can see in the video here (starting at 17:30), the two pilots of the failing craft carefully consulted the book of procedures in landing their craft safely in the water.

Checklists (and other documentation) are chiefly useful when a situation isn’t optimal. When equipment malfunctions in an unusual way, when you have a new person in a role, or when risk is high, documentation becomes essential. 

A note of caution, though: checklists don’t work for everything. When you need substantive product documentation that describes how to implement or use an entire system, a checklist may not be enough. As this article from the Nielsen Norman Group points out, some companies make the mistake of substituting feature checklists for substantive information on how to use or understand the product or service. For more guidance on using checklists well, see this article.

Still, used properly, checklists and other documentation can reduce risk and increase efficiency. That’s what we help you do!

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