While the vast majority of all aircraft accidents still occur in the landing phase, research shows that nearly all pilots who fly professionally ignore company policies regarding go-around procedures.

Why pilots ignore the policies and decide to land is lesser known. But William Curtis of Canadian research firm Presage says, “No other single decision can have such an impact on the industry accident rate.”

Presage, which is working with the Flight Safety Foundation to study human factors surrounding go-around decision-making, has recommended that operators take a new look at their go-around policies to minimize subjectivity of a go-around decision, enhance situational awareness in the policies and set compliance targets.

Curtis, formerly director of flight safety at Air Canada and chairman of safety committees for groups such as Airlines for America (then the Air Transport Association) and International Air Transport Association, notes that in 2011, 65% of all accidents occurred on landing and approach. A decade earlier, Curtis recently told the Air Charter Safety Foundation’s 2014 Air Charter Safety Symposium, “It’s the same story. Nothing changed in 10 years. In 2012, it’s almost identical.”

For the business aviation community, landing phase accidents have become even more prevalent in recent years, according to Robert E. Breiling Associates. At least a handful of the business aircraft fatal accidents over the past year involved cases in which the pilot executed a missed approach and then crashed on the second landing attempt.

These accidents included the Jan. 5 crash of a Bombardier Challenger in Aspen, Colo., that killed the pilot and injured two others, Curtis notes. While the investigation remains in the early stages, the weather, including gusting wind, was nearly the same on the second attempted landing as the first, Curtis notes.

Leading safety researchers have concluded that 83% of landing accidents could be preventable with a go-around, Curtis notes. Studies conducted by multiple sources, including an Airbus study and analyses of Line Operations Safety Audit and FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing data, have shown that only 3-4% of pilots follow their company policies on go-around procedures, Curtis notes.

While the statistics are more substantial concerning the fact that pilots aren’t following company policies, less is known as to why. Flight Safety Foundation’s International Advisory Committee and European Advisory Committee in 2011 commissioned Presage to use a science-based approach to look at pilots’ decision-making.

“Our goal is to find a scientific model … based on the psychology. Once we understand the psychology of this, then we can get to some universals,” says Presage Chief Scientific Officer David Jamieson. He notes that not all unstable conditions need a go-around. “But why are people making these decisions?”

Presage surveyed nearly 2,400 pilots on their situational awareness during a go-around event and an unstable approach. Presage broke down situational awareness during these events into nine “constructs” ranging from a “gut feeling” to “seeing the threats” and “knowing the procedures.” Pilots who made go-around decisions had better recall of all nine situational constructs during their decision-making than did pilots who chose to proceed with an unstable approach.

In addition to lower situational awareness, Presage found perceptions of less risk, less communication, a feeling that company policies were unrealistic and a perception of pressure to make a landing decision, Curtis said.

Presage also surveyed management. This survey had far fewer responses than the pilot survey – only 164 managers, or 18%, responded (many chose to fill the survey out from the pilot standpoint). But the limited findings on this end of the survey showed that 68% of managers were unaware of the compliance rate, 55% did not know their company’s rate of compliance and only 20% saw their policies as ineffective. This sets up a scenario of “willful blindness,” Curtis says.