Socio-technical approach key to air safety, research suggests

An innovative socio-technical approach provides the key to improving safety in aviation and astronautics, according to a University of Leicester expert.

Dr Simon Bennett, director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit within the University of Leicester’s School of Business (ULSB), has devoted his 25-year academic career to the cause of improving aviation and astronautics safety.

Aviation has united the planet and spurred economic development. Astronautics may, in time, ensure that our species survives.

Through his in-vivo studies of aviation professionals, Dr Bennett has demonstrated how sociology can improve safety. He comments:

“Received wisdom has it that quantitative techniques hold the key to improving safety. My research shows that the best results are achieved through a hybrid approach that combines quantitative with qualitative techniques.

“Understanding why things go wrong requires an appreciation of technical and human factors, and of how turbulence in the social, economic and political environment can increase the likelihood of failure.”

He suggests that systems-thinking – a technique that seeks the fullest understanding of failure by referencing the social, economic and political context of near-misses, incidents and accidents – provides the key to improving aviation and astronautics safety further.

Dr Bennett has sought to advance the cause of systems-thinking by publishing books with a wide appeal. Major works include his 2012 edited collection Innovative Thinking in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management (Gower) and his 2019 monograph Systems-thinking for Safety (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers).

The late Sir David Amess MP placed a copy of the latter book, which contains a study of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, in the House of Commons Library. Sir David took an active interest in public safety issues.

Dr Bennett’s new book, Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach, further advances the cause of systems-thinking. Published in November 2021, the book uses case studies of high-profile disasters such as the loss of SpaceShipTwo N339SS and the deadly Boeing 737MAX-8 accidents to demonstrate how sociological concepts such as mindlessness, passive learning, normalisation and organising for high-reliability can shed light on why things go wrong and what can be done to reduce the chances of a repeat. 

Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach is published by Routledge. For more information, email