Default heuristic can help crew decision favouring a go-around if unstable


Flight crew take numerous decisions on every flight consciously by deliberating or by default as an automated cognitive process. Heuristics are the cognitive rules of thumb, hard-wired mental shortcuts that everyone uses every day in routine decision making and judgment. Herbert, W. (2010, August 29). A Cognitive Avalanche. Retrieved from

The crew on final approach to land need to configure the aircraft to meet certain requirements to be judged as safe to land by a 1000ft. If not, then they must go-around and attempt another approach or divert.

At 1000ft where the crew has to make a decision, what if the default mode is to call for a go-around and if parameters meet the safety criteria, the crew continue to land? Will this be a safer option than the current method, which is the reverse of this?


One decision that is common for every crew on the final approach to land is at 1000 feet above the runway. The decision to continue with the approach if the set parameters are within limits otherwise carry out a go-around. This is an area of concern for the aviation community since a number of times the crew are unable to take the correct decision and end up compromising the safety of the flight.

A second decision point is as the decision altitude, which is the minimum altitude that the crew can descend on an instrument approach. Further descent is permitted after acquiring visual reference with the runway or other elements like approach lights etc.

Call out at decision point

The pilot flying would confirm sighting the visual reference for landing and call “Landing”, announcing the decision. Late the call out was changed to “Continue”. The reason behind the change was that the crew must not be so committed to land by announcing “Land” that in the event that the approach becomes unsafe below the decision point, the crew is unable to go-around safely. A go-around can be carried out from any point in an approach and even after touch down provided the reverse thrust is not selected. From the psychological point of view, this change in call out was a good one, but the crew continued to take the risky option.

Default heuristic

Many studies have shown that decision-makers have a tendency to choose the default or standard action among several possible actions. The default heuristic in strategic decision-making: When ….

In principle, when a decision maker faces several possible actions, only the outcomes of these actions should matter, and not the name of an action or whether it is considered the standard action or not. However, research shows that the evaluation of an outcome depends on how the outcome is achieved. Kahneman and Tversky (1982) found that people feel a stronger emotional reaction to bad outcomes that result from action compared to similar outcomes that result from inaction.

Kahneman and Miller (1986) suggested that the affective response to an event is enhanced if its causes are abnormal, which in turn can be the reason for the above phenomenon.

Action vs Inaction

Retaining the status-quo, or inaction, is usually more common than acting and changing the status quo, and consequently, people usually feel worse about bad outcomes that result from action than from similar outcomes that result from inaction.

Several studies confirm this idea and show that people tend to judge acts that are harmful (relative to the alternative) as worse than omissions that are equally or even more harmful (for a review, see Baron, 1994).

According to this idea, the bias in favour of inaction depends on inaction being the norm. In cases where action is more standard, decision makers should be biased in favor of action because then inaction that results in bad outcomes causes stronger bad feelings than action with similar results. Ritov and Baron (1994) confirm this idea and show that when action is more expected than inaction, adverse outcomes of inaction are judged as worse than identical outcomes of action.

Goalkeepers dilemma

In the context of goalkeeper behavior during penalty kicks in soccer. Even though statistical analysis of penalty kicks shows that the goalkeeper’s probability to stop the kick is maximized when he stays at the goal’s center, in 94% of the penalty kicks they analyze, the goalkeeper dived right or left. The authors explain that because diving is the norm, a goalkeeper feels worse when missing the ball if he does not dive than if he dives, leading goalkeepers to almost always dive.(Bar-Eli, Azar, and Lurie (2009))

If following the standard action and finding out later that this was a mistake causes less regret than taking a less standard action that turns out to be mistaken, as the literature suggests, then people will usually adopt the standard action.

If the decision maker has to choose between a default action and another one, the default is likely to be the standard action, and the decision maker will be biased in favor of choosing the default action.

This observation is also the reason that in medical decision making, Johnson, Steffel, and Goldstein (2005) suggest that wise selection of default options can improve health-related choices by patients. In particular, this is recommended when one treatment seems to be the better one for most patients, and yet one wants to allow patients to possibly choose the alternative treatment. Various studies document the tendency of people to choose the default option, and consequently the importance of what the default option is.

Defaulting, simpler cognitive tool

“Defaulting is one of the simpler cognitive tools we have at our disposal, but that does not mean it isn’t powerful in its effects. Consider this real-life example: About 28 percent of Americans are potential organ donors. That is, if they died tragically today, their kidneys, liver, and other organs would be available to the long list of people waiting for transplants.

In France, 99.9 percent of the citizens are potential donors. Why would this be? Do the French have a particular character trait that predisposes them to give? Is their early moral training superior to ours? Is there perhaps an altruism gene that runs in the French population?

Well, it’s likely none of those. The answer is almost certainly much simpler. In most states in the United States, the default position for organ donation is no donation. That is, you must actively choose to be a donor by signing something. You must make the effort of deciding. In France, it’s the opposite. Unless you make the effort to opt out, you are by default an organ donor. And because it’s easier for the brain to default than not, most of us don’t stop to weigh such choices[…]”Which country has the highest organ donation rates? | PBS ….

Excerpt From: Wray Herbert. “On Second Thought.” iBooks.

mindFly analysis

It is a given fact that humans are cognitive misers. We tend to choose the easier option which requires lesser analysis and the need to take decisions.

If the industry is struggling with training crew to carry out a go-around if the approach is unstable, there has to be a method which uses reverse psychology.

Reverse psychology is a technique involving the assertion of a belief or behavior that is opposite to the one desired, with the expectation that this approach will encourage the subject of the persuasion to do what actually is desired.

Using default heuristic for the approach can solve the flight crew in taking a safer decision on every approach. If go-around becomes the default mode, then at 1000ft or below the crew will by default carry out a go-around if the approach parameters are not satisfied.

The crew will thus take a conscious decision at a 1000ft to continue the approach after having checked the flight parameters. This is against the current policy of continuing the approach by default and go-around if parameters are breached.

Pilot flying /Auto callout calls……………….. 1000ft

Pilot monitoring questions …………………Go Around?

Pilot flying decides …………………Go Around/Continue

Give it a try and see.

About Capt. Amit Singh

I think therefore I am Airlines Operations and Safety balance expert. A former head of operations/training and safety of successful LCC's in India. An experienced member of the startup teams of these airlines has hands-on experience in establishing airlines systems and processes.

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