TREND : data collection on incidents to improve aviation safety

FAA Plans To Identify Threats To Aviation Safety Through Data Analysis

Expanding its analysis of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) plans to identify threats to aviation safety in masses of data, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on June 11th to the House Committee on Science and Technology that the agency is on the right track in looking at their massive data files for safety trends in the air system in an effort to avoid future accidents.

The report, Aviation Safety: Improved Data Quality and Analysis Capabilities are Needed as FAA Plans a Risk-Based Approach to Safety Oversight, was requested by Members of the Science and Technology Committee, including Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), Senior Member Jerry Costello (D-IL), who is also Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC), andSpace and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Research and Science Education Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), former Committee Member.

"I'm encouraged that the FAA is adopting the view that it's time to go looking for problems before they show up as smashed aircraft and grieving families," saidChairman Gordon, lead requester for the report.

“This kind of analysis is a significant undertaking, and we will continue to follow the FAA’s progress to make sure they get the best possible results.  As I have said before, maintaining the highest level of safety in our aviation system must be our top priority,” stated Senior Committee Member Costello.

GAO emphasizes in its report the need for strong policies and procedures governing the management of the massive flows of data to be collected and analyzed.  Here again, while the FAA has developed a draft plan for data management, GAO notes that the plan "does not define the level of accuracy and completeness needed for the data, indicate what metrics and processes FAA will use to assess the data, or identify any specific data" – and there is no date for finishing the plan.  The FAA will also need employees with statistical backgrounds and experience in the aviation industry to make this a success, but GAO notes that this will be a hiring challenge for the agency.

The Committee asked GAO for this report in the wake of controversy surrounding the National Aviation Operational Monitoring System (NAOMS) at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) two years ago.  Subcommittee Chairman Miller noted that, "GAO's report today reaffirms the value of asking the people who work in aviation about possible safety problems.  There are gaps in data gathered from FAA’s voluntary reporting that a NAOMS survey would fill.”  The report quotes both NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board that voluntary reporting data provides information we do not see in the Flight Operation Quality Assurance data downloaded from aircraft.

“I am going to work to ensure that NASA and the FAA cooperate to bring these systems into being so that we achieve the hoped-for improvements in aviation safety,” stated Subcommittee Chairwoman Giffords.

Chairman Gordon concluded, "There is one aspect of success that isn't in GAO's report, but we will need to keep in mind.  Once the FAA is relying on safety management systems, it must be ready to act when the data starts signaling a problem."

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Europe Steps Up Efforts to Collect Aviation-Safety Data

European regulators plan to step up efforts to collect incident data involving pilots and air-traffic controllers, as agencies seek more information about potentially dangerous lapses in aviation safety.

According to many safety experts on both sides of the Atlantic, European regulators lag behind Federal Aviation Administration officials in gathering details about serious mistakes or safety missteps. In the U.S, voluntary reports by pilots, controllers and mechanics are funneled straight to the FAA. But in Europe, where aviation oversight is fragmented among more than 25 national authorities, EASA only began collecting and analyzing such data three years ago. Reports about safety problems from pilots, controllers and others go first to national regulators, who are then supposed to pass them on unfiltered to the European Aviation Safety Agency.

EASA wants to assemble a more complete picture of the region's commercial-aviation hazards, including cockpit mistakes that sometimes aren't reported to regulators. "We need more data in our system" to better assess and reduce risks, said agency chief Patrick Goudou.

The initiative, disclosed at U.S.-European aviation conference here, also is intended to help agency officials participate more fully in data-sharing with their U.S. counterparts and international air-safety organizations. Though still at an early stage, the goal of such cooperation is to build comprehensive and reliable databases to allow regulators to identify and eliminate safety hazards before they can cause accidents.

Some European airlines, as well as regulators from a few countries in the region, still balk at promptly or completely turning over potentially embarrassing incident data, safety experts say.

Speaking at the conference, Mr. Goudou acknowledged that EASA currently has "difficulties" collecting all the occurrences that should be reported. He said a new safety roadmap slated to be approved next year by the European Union is expected to plug that gap and has won "a lot of promises of data-sharing." EASA, among other things, hopes to tap the expertise and staff of some national regulators to analyze data.

Mr. Goudou gave an example of the challenges stemming from spotty and unreliable reporting. Before the high-profile crash of an Air France Airbus A330 last summer in the Atlantic Ocean, regulators received very few pilot reports about malfunctions of external speed sensors. But after investigators determined that ice buildup on those sensors likely contributed to the crash, there was a flurry of pilot reports about similar problems with the sensors on other aircraft. More recently, the flow of reports about such problems has dried up.

"It's a tough cultural question we have to resolve," Mr. Goudou said in an interview. "Pilots tend to deal with the most pressing issues," so they often fail to file reports on other matters.

John Vincent, the EASA official in charge of the information-gathering initiative, told the conference the agency is "trying to establish complete access to all the safety data that is available." But Mr. Vincent added the effort has been slowed because some countries "are not happy with that." Some airlines and national regulators are bound to be "nervous about sharing with the larger global community," he said.

Debate over incident data reporting has been under way in Europe for years, but until this week EASA officials hadn't publicly outlined steps they intend to take to improve the situation. EASA currently has about 300,000 incident reports available for analysis.

Earlier this year, the FAA, EASA and two international air-safety organizations signed a preliminary agreement to move toward widespread sharing of safety data. But in Europe, calls for more voluntary reporting are hampered by legal systems that under some circumstances, permit such information to obtained by prosecutors. Voluntary safety reports in the U.S. typically are protected from use by prosecutors or in civil suits.

EASA was created early in this decade as the European-wide aviation safety regulator, but its staff is still growing and it is still years away from assuming full responsibility for areas such as airports and pilot licensing and training.

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