Friday, December 24, 2010

The Uses of Paper in Commercial Airline Flight Operations

Nomura, S., Hutchins, E., & Holder, B. E. (2006). The uses of paper in commercial airline flight operations. In Proceedings of CSCW 06, 249-258.

Abstract: Designers of commercial aviation flight decks have recently begun to consider ways to reduce or eliminate the use of paper documents in flight operations. Using ethnographic methods we describe the cognitive functions served by the paper-use practices of pilots. The special characteristics of flight deck work give a distinctive quality to pilots’ paper-use practices. The complex high-stakes high-tempo nature of pilots’ work makes shared understandings essential to safe flight. This means that representation of flight critical information must not only be available to both pilots, but available to the pilots jointly in interaction with one another. The cross-cultural component of the pilots’ practices and how interaction with paper objects allows actors to build social identities and social relations. 

Even though this is not an article about second language writing, I like this study because it shows the interaction of different genres as if the regular process is being fast-forwarded in front of your eyes, thus making the writing process and interactions among people and genres visible, partly due to the space and time constraints regarding flights. The framework that informs the study is distributed cognition framework and the authors use an ethnographic approach in this study. The interactions between internal (cognitive) and external (including cultural (e.g., language) and technological (e.g., the design of flight deck) resources are taken into account. When I read the article I was amazed by the flow of events, for example how different genres, papers, interactions among participants follow one another or used in coordination. The authors do not leave out gestures, annotations or notes the pilots take for others or for themselves, micro-rituals--like crew briefing--or different purposes and identities the participants have.  preparation for or execution of different tasks including documentation when the task is completed. Another interesting feature of this study is that since some of the participants are L2 speakers the authors address how written and spoken English is processed and responded to by L2 speakers of English. For example, the authors state that Japanese pilots especially less experienced ones review the documents both before and after the flight and usually use Japanese annotations on documents that are in English. I very much like the design of the study and I wish the article were longer. VERY interesting reading.


  1. You might be interested in reading Hutchins' book, Cognition in the Wild. Although it came out 15 years ago, it's a great book on distributed cognition.

  2. Thank you very much for your recommendation, Charles. Such a wonderful Christmas present for me! I'm adding the book to my never ending 'to read' list. I hope to finish reading the book before the Spring semester.