Problem Solving and Decision Making

As human beings, we make thousands of decisions every day. Yes, thousands and for pilots, it’s even more. But, why is it different for pilots? And, why is it more important that we understand the fundamentals of decision making as well as having the tools to deliver effective and efficient problem-solving solutions?

We have all read Air Accident Investigations where the decision-making of the pilots has been analysed. In essence, that is the big difference. The context of making decisions on an aircraft means the risks are far greater.

The decisions are more complex given the dynamic environment in which aircraft operate and the time pressures. Pilots often have to make challenging decisions based on imperfect information and with an awareness of the risks if anything goes wrong.

So, what is a decision?

Decision, by English Dictionary standard is:

Decision (noun)

  • a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration.

In the simplest form, we can break down a decision into two parts:

  1. Firstly, we need to receive information and understand the threats (situational awareness).
  2. Secondly, we need to process this information to work out what to do, form a plan.

How do we make decisions?

Control that Chimp!

Humans have evolved but still retain some of our most basic reactions. When we perceive a threat, we either Fight, Flight or Freeze. This isn’t conducive to complex decision making. Understand that you, like all human beings, have a tendency to make quick decisions. We need to in life.

We wouldn’t have time to analyse every decision. This means a great deal of our decisions are intuitive and that is ok, in normal life. However, we need to recognize that this bias towards quick decision making is there and ultimately find ways of mitigating it for when the problems faced are more complex.

We can categorise Decision Making into three types: 

  1. Experience-Based

When faced with a particular situation, the subconscious will look to previous experiences and attempt to pattern match this scenario with one we have seen before. This can speed up the decision-making process thanks to our memory retaining past information, preventing us from dwelling or over-complicating. It feels like the right thing to do; ‘gut instinct’.

However, it is only effective if we have relevant experience to draw upon. Past experiences can also come with their own risks. Just because in a previous and similar scenario our decision was effective, it doesn’t guarantee the same outcome in this situation. It is unlikely to be effective in complex problems. It is also difficult in a team environment where we bring different experiences into our decision making.

  1. Rule-Based

We work in a highly complex and dynamic environment. As a result, we need an efficient and effective method of managing the more predictable events. Pilots, airlines, manufacturers and regulators all contribute towards rules and SOPs that we can refer to if necessary.

You have all seen evidence of this with Stable Approach Criteria (SAC) determining when you must Go-Around and conduct a Missed Approach Procedure. During Takeoff, we will also have defined events for when we would abort the takeoff or when we would continue the departure. This makes decisions easy and quick. By practicing these decisions, they often require little effort and are often executed well as a result.

However, there cannot be a rule for every situation and in instances where rules do apply, you must apply correctly in order to have the desired effect. Finally, these are clearly designed for specific circumstances and aren’t adaptable and flexible when we face new situations.

  1. Analytical

Analytical decision making will generally be used for more complex and unusual situations since it involves a more cognitive process. Firstly, we need some time to reason and apply logic to assessing options and concluding on the optimum decision. This is an effective method when dealing with unpredictable events. Importantly, it doesn’t require previous experience and it is therefore flexible and can be applied to many problems. It does, however, require time and can reduce capacity from other activities. 

Threats – some threats to be aware of. 

The Chimp

The Chimp inside of us will want to make a quick decision. It will see the problem as a task to complete with intentions of resolving it with minimum cognitive effort. We need to control this tendency to ensure we employ the appropriate decision-making process

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is effectively a bias towards a decision we have already made. Once we have concluded which path to take, we can seek information to back up our decision and equally dismiss information that conflicts with it.

Risky Shift

Team dynamics can cause us to behave differently. We can all be guilty of trying to ‘fit in’. This can mean we generally prefer co-operating rather than challenging our colleagues. This can affect the decisions that may have occurred if we were working independently. Furthermore, there is a phenomenon called Risky Shift. In a group, we assess risks differently and as such, a group is likely to make a riskier decision than an individual.

Let’s look at how IATA defines Problem Solving and Decision Making and what Behavioural Indicators are used. 

Competency Description

Accurately identifies risks and resolves problems. Uses the appropriate decision-making processes.”

Behavioral Indicators

  • Seeks accurate and adequate information from appropriate sources 
  • Identifies and verifies what and why things have gone wrong 
  • Employ(s) proper problem-solving strategies 
  • Perseveres in working through problems without reducing safety 
  • Uses appropriate and timely decision-making processes
  • Sets priorities appropriately Identifies and considers options effectively
  • Monitors, reviews, and adapts decisions as required Identifies and manages risks effectively
  • Improvises when faced with unforeseeable circumstances to achieve the safest outcome

Top Tips

Decision Making Frameworks 

There are several Decision Making Frameworks around. Depending on your airline or geography, you may find one that is more prevalent. Essentially, they all are attempting to do the same thing: to give you a process to apply that will press you to be analytical, structured and effective. 


Here we will look at FORDEC:

F – Facts (What has happened? What are the implications?)

O – Options (Continue, Divert, Hold, Emergency Landing)

R – Risks (What are the risks of each option? Can also consider the benefits of each option)

D – Decide (Choose an option to action)

E – Execute (Perform the decision by assigning workload)

C – Check (Review is it working? Has anything changed? Is there a better option now?)

Expanding on these:


We need to understand the problem before we can make a decision on how to resolve it. The facts aren’t just what has happened but also how this affects us. For example, a fuel leak may have happened, but the implications could vary massively depending on the size of the leak, the location, whether it can be controlled or not, fuel remaining, etc.

On most modern jets there is an electronic warning system monitoring most aircrafts. Be careful though as it may not display the whole picture. Have a look around and try to find other indications that could signal a different cause.


Firstly, is there a sense of urgency? For example, do you need to make an immediate landing? Usually not. Therefore, where is a sensible place to point the aircraft while we make a decision? Can we continue as normal, or do we need to consider diversions? Can we hold somewhere that would provide lots of options but also reduce our workload? If you decide to divert, where can we go from here? What factors should we consider? Weather, Runway length, Approach complexity. 


Once we’ve got some options, we evaluate what risks they pose. Sometimes there can be many options but by analysing the risks and benefits of each we can narrow it down to the optimum decision. We hadn’t planned on this event or this possible diversion, so there are risks. We need to be aware of them to properly manage them. 


As a team, decide together what you believe to be the best option. Make sure as a team you both believe this to be the correct decision. 


Assign and distribute workload across the team to make sure all tasks are completed in good time so that the full crew has capacity for the approach, landing or possible missed approach. 


This is your review and should be continuous. Keep asking each other if the plan is working. 

Some appropriate questions may sound like:

  • Has anything changed?
  • Is the aircraft/system recoverable?
  • Do you still feel this decision is correct?
  • Do you feel a safe landing is likely?
  • Are there new options?

If you decide that your decision was wrong, start the process again. Remember time will play an important role in the decision-making process. If you have lots of time you are looking for the optimum solution. If it is time critical you may just be looking for a safe solution that can be actioned efficiently. 

Risk Analysis


B – Benefits

R – Risks

A – Alternatives

I – Intuition

N – Nothing

As discussed earlier, we can often function differently as a team than as individuals when it comes to risk. Therefore, having a tool to verbalise and share your assessment of risk can be very powerful in mitigating this. The five steps above give a simple structure to follow when analysing options and can be used independently or in conjunction with the Decision Making Framework. 

The steps are fairly self explanatory. We discuss the benefits and risks of an option. Ask if any alternative options are available. Intuition asks you to evaluate how you feel. As an individual you will be more risk averse making it important to check: “does this feel safe”, “am I comfortable with this option?”, “what are the implications?” or, “do we really need to divert? 

A good example of this could be that you are 40nm from an airfield and ATC have offered you a visual approach to another runway than you had briefed. You may look at your colleague and both think “yes, we can do that”. But, a quick BRAIN analysis may convince you that actually the briefed plan may be the safer option and there is little benefit but a lot of extra risk involved from accepting ATC’s invitation. This doesn’t mean to say that you can’t ever accept a runway change or visual approach but, the plan should be briefed and the risks managed. 

Severity Scale

We’ve already mentioned that we have to control our inner Chimp. Our Chimp is likely to take action especially if it perceives the problem as severe. This could undermine our decision making process as we are likely to cut corners and use experience based decision making which may not be appropriate. 

As a crew we could discuss how severe we think the problem is on a scale of 1 to 10. 

1 = I’m relaxed, no real concern. 

10 = Lets get this on the ground immediately, my hair is on fire!

Just by verbalising where we think it is individually on ‘our’ scale, the chances are it is not a 9 or a 10. This should help us to slow things down, control that chimp, and use a more analytical decision making process. You may also find that your colleague is much more relaxed than you are, because they have seen this before and know how to resolve it. It only takes a few seconds and can be very impactful.

The Three-Legged Stool

This model is designed for the rare occasions where you may be required to break SOPs to ensure a safe outcome. This is extremely uncomfortable, as pilots we are trained to follow the rules and not to deviate from SOPs. However, there are occasions when this could be correct. Before you ever deviate from SOPs, a robust Risk Assessment should be carried out. 

Your responsibilities as Flight Crew are:

  1. Law – Duty of Care of passengers and crew – You could go to prison, people could die.
  2. Regulation – EASA or UK CAA ruleset – You could lose your license and career.
  3. Company – Airline rules and SOPs – You could lose your job.

The consequences of breaking these responsibilities varies. It is possible that you could find yourself in a position where you need to break company SOPs or Regulatory rules to maintain your Duty of Care to passengers and crews. This would be the correct prioritization. Ultimately, you should never break your Duty of Care to passengers and crew whatever the circumstances.

Hopefully, these top tips prove useful in your operation.

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