JFK TWR & Kuwaiti 117, learned carelessness not acceptable to the controller


The ATC voice recording between the JFK controller and the crew of Kuwaiti 117 is a prime example of learned carelessness or in simple terms bad habit.

Carelessness refers to the lack of awareness during a behaviour that can result in unintentional consequences. The consequences way of carelessness are often undesirable and tend to be mistakes.

The theory of Learned Carelessness offers an explanation why humans take unnecessary risks by omitting safety precautions against better judgment. It is assumed carelessness is learned by means of operant conditioning

Humans are “cognitive misers” (Wickens & Hollands, 2000) which means that they follow the path of the least cognitive resistance. A reduction in effort is positively reinforcing and therefore, increases the likelihood of future shortcuts in the absence of negative consequences. 

The underlying motivation is assumed to maximize pleasure while minimizing discomfort. Once learned carelessness has developed it will distort a person’s perception, selection, and interpretation of subsequent information in favour of the monopoly hypothesis. This top-down information processing impairs motivation and capability to detect incidents. The result is unreasonably risky behaviour. 

JRF Controllers vs Kuwaiti 117

mindFly analysis

It is mandatory to report the call sign with every transmission in order to be unambiguous and convey the correct meaning of the communication transmission. The requirement to maintain visual separation is imperative and the ATC needs to be 100% sure that the two aircraft that are being separated are the ones with whom the communication is taking place.

Kuwaiti 117, did not report the call sign during the critical phase where the ATC wanted to be 100% sure that there is visual separation between the aircraft. The ATC could have reminded or confirmed with Kuwaiti 117 if the transmission originated from them or some other aircraft. Listening to the workload of the ATC controller, it was not in the best interest to remind every aircraft to follow procedures to ensure safety.

Kuwaiti 117 on the other hand did not get the message loud and clear and as a matter of habit, after JFK ordered Kuwaiti 117 to go around, the crew continued to make the same error. Therefore it is a training issue and also a safety audit issue which has not detected this and flagged the issue. Being relaxed is OK but the bare minimum required is to comply with a set of rules.