Out with the big stick

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 21 January issue of Flight International

Last year’s worldwide airline safety performance was not the best ever, but it was still very good. In fact, airline safety is so much better now than it was only 10 or 20 years ago that adopting an objective of zero fatal accidents, once considered a statistically naive concept, now looks feasible.
The barriers to achieving such a high ideal are many. Complacency is the obvious one: if the industry is ­already safe, why strive for improvement?
Meanwhile the Federal Aviation Administration faces an intriguing and revealing dilemma: it can no longer introduce new regulation to improve airline safety because the US accident rate is so low that the number of lives the new rule may save are too few to satisfy the cost/benefit analysis the FAA is required to use.
So if US airlines are to be encouraged to aim for zero fatal accidents, their improvements cannot be forced on them in the old fashioned way ­– by a stern overseer with a big stick. Instead they have to volunteer to get even better. This is what the Flight Safety Foundation was talking about some five years ago when it encouraged airlines worldwide to go “beyond regulation”.
This approach is essential for the future. With a rapidly growing world airline fleet, national aviation authorities are simply not going to be given the expert human resources and funding that would enable them to continue operating the old system. That assumed airlines would work to legal minima, and the only way they could be kept in line was for the oversight agency to have lots of inspectors and lots of sanctions. The second salient reason is that the legal approach to corporate responsibility is changing. Airline board members have cause to fear the law in a way they didn’t before. That is where the new big stick resides, not at national level. And the requirement for airlines to run credible safety management systems, which makes everything more transparent, means that ignorance, which was never a good defence anyway, is now a hanging offence.
The few serious accidents that happen now are ­almost entirely caused by human factors, mostly flightcrew mistakes, omissions or failures of discipline. This is the new battleground, and the FAA is leading the charge with a new programme that makes the industry responsible for identifying the reasons for this safety deficit and for producing a plan to deal with it. Based on a new report that delves exhaustively into the ­effects of automation on piloting, the programme is an example of FAA leadership at its best.


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