Checklistus Interruptus

Checklist is one of those rare self descriptive words that describes itself. How the thing works isn’t as easy to understand. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

For some reason which eludes me totally, every airline has vastly different checklists and procedures.  It seems to me that if everybody is doing it differently then somebody must be doing it wrong. Maybe we all are.

When there is a complex set of tasks to be accomplished the very best way we have come up with to get them all done in the correct order is to have a list that is followed. When there are multiple people involved it seems to work best for roles to be clearly defined.  One person reads the checklist, the other responds.  Sounds easy.

Watch Dr. Strangelove for some great examples. We still do it exactly the same way. And, the movie is cat juggling funny, not to mention almost fifty years old.

In practice the whole thing is too often just a way of making it against the rules to make a mistake.  Is it on the checklist? Yes. Did you do the checklist? Of course, I don’t want to make a mistake and get in trouble. Did you miss it? Yea. Then you didn’t do the checklist… Yes we did. No you didn’t … I’m fired now, right? Yes.

Pilots are typically “diciplined” by getting time off without pay for making a mistake. The severity of dicipline is based on the consequenes of the mistake instead of the magnitude of the error itself.

If you slide off a taxiway because you are going too fast there will be punsihment involved. If you are noticed going exactly the same speed in exactly the same place and nothing happens then nobody cares.  Oddly,  we all want more time off anyway.

After a few hundred times of going through the checklist it is impossible not to memorize it. After a few thousand repetetions it’s a mantra. This happens without even trying.

When a crew is tired or distracted it is fairly common for both pilots to look right at a switch, one of them ask if it is on, the other say “ON”.  Later they notice that it is OFF.  Dang.  Usually there is no consequence. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well.

Things work reasonably well using a checklist because pilots are generally serious about getting things right and try fairly hard to not screw up. It always takes a little concentration though. Sometimes it takes a lot, especially when the crew is tired.

Policy and good sense dictate that if we are bothered more than just a little bit while doing the checklist then the whole thing should be started over.  This is a huge pain in the ass.  All pilots positively loathe anything that is a huge pain in the ass.

It would seem that after just a few years as a valued co-worker  a Flight Attendant would know not to bust into the middle of checklist completion with a question that could wait 30 seconds.

This year I have encountered only one valued co-corker that was polite and aware enough to wait for us to finsih the “Before Start Checklist” before interrupting. She didn’t really count though since her husband is a Captain and has a reputation for being a controlling jagoff.

Airlines have tried everything from a mechanical scroll thing with knobs, little metal slide over tab things, index cards, big laminated cards, little laminated cards, electronic displays, scrolling electronic displays, audio enhanced scrolling electronic displays,  paper, and laminated paper.

The one thing nobody has tried is doing the stuff in the same order every time but having the checklist be a little different each time so that the responses aren’t automatic. 

It could be electronic, laminated, whatever. Just not the same every dang time, and never interrupted. The co-pilot could pick from about five choices of lists, all the same, just ordered differently so it wouldn’t become second nature …..

Then again, never mind, we’re probably all going out of business anyway.

Happy Landings


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