Online study researches aircrew stress levels

Aviation International News » March 2004
March 16, 2007, 3:10 PM

Clenching your jaw on approach? Worse, are you doing it while watching television at home hoping your pager won’t go off? You’re not alone, according to Bobbie Sullivan, Ph.D., principal researcher for an aircrew stress study.

Sullivan is a research psychologist and consulting statistician whose research experience is primarily in the area of consumer and marketing studies, political and opinion polls and financial analysis and forecasting. She developed Survey Data Lab (www.surveydatalab.com) as a virtual home for independently conducted studies for her and her colleagues.

“They were all academically oriented studies based on our interests,” she told AIN. “What I do is design and analyze studies, but I have relatives in the airline business and would listen to their tales about work when we’d get together. I realized people in the aviation industry all seem to be stressed out, but they hold it inside and they don’t want to admit they feel the stress. That got me thinking that it’s probably an industry-wide problem that isn’t well documented.”

So Sullivan developed the aircrew study, a rolling sample that looks at stress among various jobs in the aviation industry. A rolling sample is a study that allows for continuous input, with the results being updated constantly. “One of the things people hate about participating in surveys and research projects is that they never get to see the results,” she explained. “I don’t like that either, so I’ve built in an ongoing statistical breakdown, topic by topic, for everyone to see when they finish taking the survey themselves.”

The study currently includes all types of professional pilots and flight attendants but will be expanding in the near future. “I can’t believe the amount of people that have contacted me about this project,” she said. “As a result, I’m going to expand it to include dispatchers, schedulers and customer-service agents.”

The study has generated so much interest that it has spun off to its own Web site, which is open to anyone at www.aircrewstudy.com. It includes a questionnaire that takes about 30 minutes to complete and concludes with the opportunity to leave individual comments. The Web site will also feature research and articles on crew health.

The survey asks questions about a wide range of subjects, including the general background of participants such as their age, gender, marital status, family size, citizenship, where they live, education and religion. It then explores such things as the type of job and aviation sector the participant works in and then asks specific questions about different stressors in the participants’ life.

The last page of the survey offers a list of proposed topics for follow-up studies and asks participants to vote for any they think should be researched. Crew sleep and fatigue problems were the top concerns registered by 302 participants. Aircrew experiences/recollections of 9/11 were cited by 206, dealing with air rage and difficult passengers was cited by 179 and 169 suggested communication among crewmembers, especially between cockpit and cabin crew.

Sullivan said she worked on developing the survey for about a year. Last summer she distributed 100 paper surveys to family and friends in the business to get feedback on the proposed project. The final version went online in September and has since had 535 respondents from 35 countries. According to Sullivan, about 70 percent of the respondents are U.S. citizens.

One of the most interesting aspects of the survey is the area where participants can leave comments. “I have never had such a response in all my years of doing survey research,” Sullivan said. “Between a third and half of all respondents elaborated and left comments, one of the most common being how flying just isn’t fun any more since 9/11.”

Sullivan said a major issue brought up by the study is a growing disconnect between management and crews in the airline industry. “Management and crews are not seeing eye to eye. Crews are saying management is in it for the money and is not considering what’s going on with the crews. The crews are constantly under pressure of furloughs and massive cuts in pay and benefits. There’s no doubt they
are feeling stretched.”

According to Sullivan, the level of stress varies among sectors in civilian aviation. She’s not had any responses from military pilots. “There’s a big difference in the lives of the pilots depending on what sector they’re in. The Part 121 supplemental guys, the freight haulers, those guys are stretched to the limit. They consistently have the highest anxiety scores and the lowest general health and well being scores. That doesn’t mean they’re not healthy; it means they’re highly stressed.”

Conversely, Sullivan said Part 135 pilots are in pretty good shape, though Part 91 crews seem to be a bit more stressed than their Part 135 counterparts. “So too are the flight attendants in those areas because, by and large, corporate flight attendants have a very stressful life; they’re mostly contract employees.”

As a result of its international response, Sullivan said the study has revealed that stress is not culturally biased. “There has been no statistical difference in how people of different cultures feel about their jobs and how much they identify with them,” she said. “There’s simply been no difference across the board by culture. It appears that pilots all over the world have more in common with other pilots than they do with their next-door neighbors.”

Sullivan said the study has become such a major event that it has made her feel like an advocate for crews. “I’ve been doing a lot of talking to the media and writing,” she said. “I believe I have a responsibility to get this information out. While it may well be true that a few respondents have an ax to grind when they answer the questions, you get so much data from so many people that certain trends emerge very clearly. This is solid information.” 

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