The Art of Cutting Corners and the Normalization of Deviance


July 2018

Most pilots can relate to hearing of a mishap involving someone or a business they know and then thinking to themselves, “that’s not surprising at all.” Perhaps it was a pattern of behavior or well-known shortcutting of procedures that many onlookers knew was an accident waiting to happen. Perhaps it was that hangar neighbor that never pre-flights their airplane. Perhaps it was the local mechanic who was known to sign off on annuals without doing a full inspection. As we know from our training, the chain of events leading to an accident or incident started long before the mishap. It started when the deviant behavior became normal.

The term “normalization of deviance” was coined by sociologist Diane Vaughanin the wake of the Challenger Disaster. In 1986, the Challenger blew up a mere 73 seconds after lift-off due to faulty O-rings that caused the solid rocket fuel to ignite. In the resulting investigation, it was discovered that NASA engineers were aware of the flaws as early as 1981, but a culture of loosening standards and accepting such risks had fostered an environment that eventually led to disaster. The engineers knew that the launch parameters were outside of what was tested but deemed it an “acceptable risk” because they had gotten away with it so many times before2.

Another well-known example of the normalization of deviance is that of the Concordiacruise ship disaster. In 2012, the Costa Concordia cruise ship crashed into rocks off Giglio Island, killing 32 people. Although the ship was prohibited from going that close to shore, it was reported that directors at Concordia would allow, and even encourage, the deviant behavior of the “ship salutes” because they were considered to “enrich the cruise product”.Each captain would get closer and closer to shore with no consequence; until one day a ship hit rocks and caused a disaster. Had the ship’s captain followed procedures, this wouldn’t have happened.

The concept behind the normalization of deviance is that when people within an organization become accustomed to the deviant behavior, they no longer consider it as deviant. An example of this can be found on almost any road. Although turn signals and stopping fully to a rollback at a stop sign are part of the state-mandated rules of the road, people have become so accustomed to not stopping or signaling that it has become socially acceptable. By Vaughn’s theory, a driver that continues to get away with it will continue negative behavior until it becomes normal. Over time, behaviors will continue to drift further and further away from the standard.

Although the consequences can be high on the road as well, aviation has a way of being unforgiving of recklessness. Many pilots’ lives could have been saved by a proper pre-flight or checklist usage. There have been several engine failures related to fuel contamination that was not discovered on a pre-flight. Taking extra time to preflight the fuel to check for water and contaminants could have possibly saved someone’s life. Many inadvertent gear up landings could be prevented by using a checklist. We all learned to pre-flight and use a checklist during our training, so why is it that a lack of these elementary safety tools allows mishaps to reoccur? How many pilots are caught off guard by NOTAMs and weather? Perhaps a proper briefing could have also prevented an unanticipated and dangerous situation.

Many pilots try to rationalize shortcuts under pressure. As the pilots get away with it over and over again, the behavior becomes normal. Not checking weather and NOTAMS, skipping items on a pre-flight, or not using a checklist are just a few examples of shortcuts that pilots often find themselves rationalizing. Reinforcing negative behavior with no consequences only fuels the tendency to continue cutting corners. Following procedures in the interest of safety is the only way to overcome these phenomena. As an instructor or just a fellow pilot, encourage your students and peers to follow the correct procedures and not cut any corners. Although we’ve gotten away with it many times before, the behavior will ultimately lead to a preventable disaster. “I’ve gotten away with this before” is not the way to rationalize a behavior, because today may be the day the bill comes due.

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Sarah Rovner holds an ATP certificate with a CL-65 type rating and is currently an FAA Safety Team Lead Representative, Master Instructor, Captain and CTP simulator instructor with a Part 121 airline. Since changing careers after years as a senior network engineer for the oil & gas industry, Sarah has obtained her ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI and has flown over 4200 hours. As the owner of an international ferry pilot company, FullThrottle Aviation LLC, Sarah has flown over 117 different types of general aviation airplanes in 15 different countries, including oceanic crossings in small aircraft. She continues to stay involved in general aviation through mentoring and education; volunteering at many different events and presenting original seminars on aviation safety and human factors. Although much of her flying is now professional in nature, she still enjoys flying her Super Cub on her days off. As a regular attendee of EAA AirVenture and local fly-ins, she enjoys the company and camaraderie that general aviation brings. salute

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