|As the world fleet multiplies and
passenger traffic is counted in billions, one of
aviation’s major challenges is to drive down the
accident rate. And meeting that goal requires a new
method of prevention—harvesting terabytes of data from
safety reporting systems—to identify causal precursors
and stop the smoking hole in the ground from happening.
“We are living in an era of unprecedented aviation
safety, both in the U.S. and around the world,” says the
FAA’s Nicholas A. Sabatini, associate administrator for
aviation safety. Last year, the U.S. recorded 0.223
total accidents, and 0.018 fatal accidents, per 100,000
departures The International Air Transport Assn.
declared 2006 “the safest year ever” for world aviation
with 1.0 accidents per 1.5 million departures, and 0.65
fatal accidents for every 1 million departures (see
Those numbers did not happen by chance, says
Sabatini. From 1946 to the present, the U.S. fatal
accident rate dipped due to interventions put in place.
In this period, the traditional post-accident
diagnostic method of prevention was in play: First, the
crash occurred; second, an investigative agency found
probable cause; third, recommendations, regulations were
enacted to prevent recurrence.
“But the method is not one we can continue to use,”
says Sabatini. “We are no longer seeing common-cause
accidents. What we are seeing is that each has unique
“The future is about [identifying] what could
potentially happen, and key to its success is working
with industry to resolve the safety issues before us,”
Through analyzing data, precursors will be noted and
interventions put in place before an incident occurs.
To move from diagnostic to prognostic accident
analysis on a world scale, FAA is developing the
Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS)
program that will be accessible to the global aviation
ASIAS will gather safety data from government and
industry sources. These include FAA’s air traffic
control data, the NTSB accident/incident base, and
established non-punitive safety data reporting systems,
such as Flight Operational Quality Assurance and
Aviation Safety Reporting Systems (see chart). The
terabytes of data are de-identified, grouped and studied
to pinpoint trends.
How exactly would data translate to saving lives?
Sabatini provides an example following the NTSB’s
determination of probable cause of the Aug. 27, 2006,
crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Lexington (Ky.) Blue
The flight crew’s failure to use available cues to
determine the aircraft’s position led to a takeoff from
the wrong runway that ended in a crash that killed 49 of
50 people on board.
Parties to the investigation looked beyond that, says
Sabatini, and asked if there was cause for pilot
confusion at select airports. The ASIAS office examined
5.4 million records to discover that in a 20-year period
there were 117 isolated instances where flight crews
reported confusion while operating at certain U.S.
“The data was there,” says Sabatini, who notes the
challenge of such a system is “how to determine what
event[s] are of concern and require a paradigm to
And when data indicated a rise in Category A runway
incursions (where the greatest chance for collision
exists), the FAA in August convened an unprecedented
Call to Action with industry decision makers to address
the urgent global issue of incursions.
The meeting was a “snapshot of the future” says
Sabatini, where industry and government will collaborate
in finding solutions when data drive them together.
The Call to Action translated into practical safety
measures. Air Wisconsin, for example, initiated a
simulator training scenario that begins at the gate and
includes taxi out to the runway, rather than at the
traditional starting point, the departure end of the
runway. The airport community also weighed in on runway
markings that required improvement.
If the system is to work, aviation laws will require
harmonization, with infrastructure (both regulatory and
physical) standardized worldwide. “When it comes to
safety, sovereignty has no boundaries,” says Sabatini.
“And as industry globalizes, it has to be far more
involved in global issues as well,” says Flight Safety
Foundation President/CEO William R. Voss. “You can’t be
distracted by your own backyard.”
A strong regulatory capability to build and enforce a
safe system is required. “If the regulator doesn’t
engage, you are handed an unwinnable fight.” Voss is
concerned that some developing states will have a tough
time “trying to live up to the safety record of the rest
of the world because it is going to be difficult for
them to say ‘no’ to [economic] growth. So too,
regulators in some new countries cannot keep up
oversight responsibility. Fees that are aimed for
support of aviation growth aren’t necessarily being
directed at infrastructure, but toward the regulatory
mechanisms that must be put into place.
“We have to make safety a political issue,” says
Voss, “[and apply] a ‘pressure among peers’ of
regulators, of states looking out for other states.”
He cites the U.S. and Europe putting pressure on
other states to live up to their safety oversight
obligations. Voss says he maintains a “pro-activist
rather than a pro-blacklist posture. Countries working
in a sort of web of enforcement is really the ultimate
answer to many regulatory problems.”
Voss points to China’s creative solution to managing
growth. Yang Yuan Yuan, minister for civil aviation, has
limited the rate of economic growth and is holding
safety as the constant, raising pilot training
requirements, for example. China’s traffic grew nearly
19.5% in the first half of the year; 4,000 aircraft are
anticipated to be flying in 2020 compared with 1,039 now
The globalization of aviation is increasingly
evident. The International Air Transport Assn.
Operational Safety Audit program, a requirement for
members, is aimed at setting an operations standard.
IATA formed a working group to examine the new airline
pilot licensing standard (see p. 54) and is offering
workshops on implementing the Safety Management System (SMS),
a program Voss describes as an “absolutely vital and
efficient way of attaining levels of safety.”
SMS is a structure of voluntary, non-punitive
reporting methods set up within a company to foster
safety awareness throughout the organization, from
boardroom to maintenance bay. Some regulators have
already instituted broad-based safety programs. In 2005,
Transport Canada mandated its airlines adopt SMS.
When the worst occurs, it remains the investigative
agency’s job to follow the post-accident diagnostic
method: Discover the probable cause and issue
Finding precursors is not the NTSB’s mission per se,
says Chairman Mark Rosenker. He considers the agency
very proactive in terms of preventing accidents from
recurring through recommendations, and says this plays
“a tremendous role in bringing down the rates.”
“The more data available, the better equipped you are
to deal with incidents and accidents, and a better
understanding of the trends can truly make a difference
in recommendations,” Rosenker adds.
The NTSB also is engaged in the new predictive
methodology, and is in the initial stages of building a
data bank for internal use that will provide “good hard
data” on causes of U.S. general aviation accidents and
incidents. This sector, while much improved, recorded
6.64 total accidents and 1.32 fatal accidents per
100,000 departures in 2006 (see p. 57). In building
safety on a global scale, the highly respected accident
investigation body, says Rosenker, can be “a tremendous
influence.” It is invited by many developing nations to
assist in investigations, provide guidance in building
counterpart agencies and aid in the training of
investigators and other personnel.
However, the need for pressure among peers again
rises. Rosenker says, “More needs to be done [in
industry] to target countries where there is a lack of
standardization, some lack of regulation, or where a
pattern of accidents occurred that could have been
prevented—countries who are not compliant with ICAO
Annex 13 guidelines to the spirit and letter.”
“You can make a difference in this business.
Investigating an accident, finding its cause, preventing
it from recurring . . . short of being a doctor, I can’t
think of any greater profession dedicated to saving