How do Pilots Make Decisions?

How do Commercial Airline Pilots Make Decisions?

A look at the decision-making process on the flight deck

How Do Pilots Make Decisions?

Pilots make important critical decisions every day at work. This starts before they even arrive for duty such as deciding whether they are fit to operate or not. Some decisions can be made with plenty of time available but other decisions are under much more time pressure such as if to fly a missed approach and go-around. We look at how pilots are trained to make such decisions.

Decision-Making Models

Decision-making is a non-technical skill. It might come to some people more easily than others, but pilots are trained in the art of decision-making.

Decision-making can be influenced by a multitude of factors, such as stress, time pressure, knowledge, perception and experience. Everyone can think of an example when they have made a bad decision, perhaps because they didn’t consider all the options or didn’t correctly diagnose the problem in the first place. Rushed and ill thought out decisions can have grave consequences on the flight deck, which is why flight crew are trained specifically on the decision-making process.

To try and prevent a rushed or inappropriate decision being made by the flight crew, they are taught to use a decision-making tool which helps to provide structure and discipline to the process. These can take different forms, but two of the most popular are tDODAR and PIOSEE. This is taught both within ground school and in the simulator to promote the crew naturally reverting to this process when a complicated decision needs to be made.


t – Time. First, assess the time available/required to get the aircraft on the ground. You should assess the aircraft fuel state and how time critical the response needs to be. For example an engine failure is not immediately time critical, but an uncontained fire or double engine failure is. You can then set the pace and develop a rough idea of a timeline involved.

D – Diagnose the problem. Usually, the PF (or Captain as appropriate) should invite the PM (First Officer) to diagnose the problem. This is to avoid confirmation bias which is a scenario where an inexperienced crew member will want to agree with a senior Captain regardless of if their perception of the situation differs. This might serve to highlight a factor which the other crew member hadn’t noticed. For example, the Captain may have just heard a bang, whilst the First Officer saw a flock of birds a second before the bang. This helps to ensure the problem is diagnosed correctly, which is critical to ensuring a suitable decision is made. You may want to include other people within the diagnoses, for example, the cabin crew, air traffic control or passengers might have some useful information.

O – Options. Option generation is a multi-crew process. All flight crew members should take part in generating potential options. Both the advantages and disadvantages should be considered. An example of option generation is; where is your nearest suitable airport? What approaches are available? What is the weather presently doing and forecast to do? Check the cloud base above the minima for the approach. Is the runway performance limiting? What emergency services will be available? For non-emergency scenarios, consider an aerodromes commercial viability such as is it a base with engineering coverage, ground handling contracts in place etc…? Consider a backup plan for if you make an approach and don’t land.

D – Decide. Analyse the options you have generated to make a joint decision. If there is a disagreement in the decision, the Captain has the final say, but should always explain why he/she feels that decision is the most appropriate for the situation.

A – Assign. Who is going to do what? This might now be a very busy period for the flight crew where excellent coordination is essential. The crew will need to notify ATC, the cabin crew, passengers and if possible the company, of their decision. The crew will need to set up for the approach and deliver a briefing all whilst monitoring the aircraft’s automatic systems, navigating and communicating.

R – Review. Reviews should be happening right until the situation is fully resolved (after disembarking the passengers). The crew should always be prepared to amend or change their decision as required – flexibility is key. The crew should be questioning whether they have made the right decision, or if there’s anything they haven’t considered.


The PIOSEE model is basically the same as tDODAR with interchangeable words:

  • Problem
  • Information
  • Options
  • Select
  • Execute
  • Evaluate