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Plan Continuation Bias
(Plan) Continuation Bias is the unconscious cognitive bias to continue with the original plan in spite of changing conditions.
The following explanation of continuation bias is derived from a Transport Safety Board of Canada accident report.
To make decisions effectively, a pilot or controller needs an accurate understanding of the situation and an appreciation of the implications of the situation, then to formulate a plan and contingencies, and to implement the best course of action. Equally important is the ability to recognize changes in the situation and to reinitiate the decision-making process to ensure that changes are accounted for and plans modified accordingly. If the potential implications of the situation are not adequately considered during the decision-making process, there is an increased risk that the decision and its associated action will result in an adverse outcome that leads to an undesired aircraft state.
A number of different factors can adversely impact a pilot's decision-making process. For example, increased workload can adversely impact a pilot's ability to perceive and evaluate cues from the environment and may result in attentional narrowing. In many cases, this attentional narrowing can lead to Confirmation Bias, which causes people to seek out cues that support the desired course of action, to the possible exclusion of critical cues that may support an alternate, less desirable hypothesis. The danger this presents is that potentially serious outcomes may not be given the appropriate level of consideration when attempting to determine the best possible course of action.
One specific form of confirmation bias is (plan) continuation bias, or plan continuation error. Once a plan is made and committed to, it becomes increasingly difficult for stimuli or conditions in the environment to be recognized as necessitating a change to the plan. Often, as workload increases, the stimuli or conditions will appear obvious to people external to the situation; however, it can be very difficult for a pilot caught up in the plan to recognize the saliency of the cues and the need to alter the plan.
When continuation bias interferes with the pilot's ability to detect important cues, or if the pilot fails to recognize the implications of those cues, breakdowns in situational awareness (SA) occur. These breakdowns in SA can result in non-optimal decisions being made, which could compromise safety.
In a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Ames Research Center review of 37 accidents investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, it was determined that almost 75% of the tactical decision errors involved in the 37 accidents were related to decisions to continue on the original plan of action despite the presence of cues suggesting an alternative course of action. Dekker (2006) suggests that continuation bias occurs when the cues used to formulate the initial plan are considered to be very strong. For example, if the plan seems like a great plan, based on the information available at the time, subsequent cues that indicate otherwise may not be viewed in an equal light, in terms of decision making.
Therefore, it is important to realize that continuation bias can occur, and it is important for pilots to remain cognizant of the risks of not carefully analyzing changes in the situation, and considering the implications of those changes, to determine whether or not a more appropriate revised course of action is appropriate. As workload increases, particularly in a single-pilot scenario, less and less mental capacity is available to process these changes, and to consider the potential impact that they may have on the original plan.
Accidents and Incidents
SKYbrary includes the following reports relating to events where continuation bias was considered to be a factor:
- AS65, vicinity North Morecambe Platform Irish Sea UK, 2006 (On 27 December 2006, an AS365 Dauphin 2, operated by CHC Scotia, crashed into the sea adjacent to a gas platform in Morecambe Bay, UK, at night, following loss of control.)
- MD82 / C441, Lambert-St Louis MI USA, 1994 (On 22 November 1994 a McDonnell Douglas MD 82 flight crew taking off from Lambert- St. Louis at night in excellent visibility suddenly became aware of a stationary Cessna 441 on the runway ahead and was unable to avoid a high speed collision. The collision destroyed the Cessna but allowed the MD82 to be brought to a controlled stop without occupant injury. The Investigation found that the Cessna 441 pilot had mistakenly believed his departure would be from the runway he had recently landed on and had entered that runway without clearance whilst still on GND frequency.)
- D228, vicinity Kathmandu Nepal, 2012 (On 28 September 2012, control of a Sita Air Dornier 228 being flown by an experienced pilot was lost at approximately 100 feet aal after take off from Kathmandu in benign daylight weather conditions and the aircraft stalled without obvious attempt at recovery before impacting the ground where a fire broke out. All occupants were killed and the aircraft was destroyed. The comprehensive investigation found that insufficient engine thrust was being delivered to sustain flight but, having eliminated engine bird ingestion and aircraft loading issues, was unable to establish any environmental, airworthiness or loading issue which might have caused this.)
- B738, Eindhoven Netherlands, 2012 (On 11 October 2012, the crew of a Ryanair Boeing 737-800 did not change frequency to TWR when instructed to do so by GND whilst already backtracking the departure runway and then made a 180° turn and took off without clearance still on GND frequency. Whilst no actual loss of ground or airborne safety resulted, the Investigation found that when the Captain had queried the receipt of a take off clearance with the First Officer, he had received and accepted a hesitant confirmation. Crew non-compliance with related AIP ground manoeuvring restrictions replicated in their airport briefing was also noted.)
- DH8A, Saulte Ste. Marie ON Canada, 2015 (On 24 February 2015, the crew of a Bombardier DHC8-100 continued an already unstable approach towards a landing despite losing sight of the runway as visibility deteriorated in blowing snow. The aircraft touched down approximately 140 metres before the start of the paved surface. The continued unstable approach was attributed by the Investigation to "plan continuation bias" compounded by "confirmation bias". It was also found that although the aircraft operator had had an approved SMS in place for almost six years, it had not detected that approaches made by the aircraft type involved were routinely unstable.)
- TSB. Air Transportation Safety Investigation Report A18P0031 Loss of Control and Collision with Terrain. 14 August 2019.
- The “Barn Door” Effect by C. West, Ph.D., NOAA - a paper about pilots’ propensity to continue approaches to land when closer to convective weather than they would wish to get while en route.