Colgan Air Q400 crash: how about putting CVR tapes into FOQA?

Colgan Q400 crash.jpg

Buried in the pile of pretty incendiary documents on the Colgan Air Q400 crash that will start to become public today, I understand there is one that will cause particular angst in the pilot community. That’s a suggestion from Colgan that cockpit voice recorder (CVR) extracts should become part of the flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) process.

If you’re not familiar with FOQA, it’s a programme in widespread(though not widespread enough) use through which disidentified flightdata is downloaded on disk from every flight and monitored partly foremerging patterns that may give an early indication of an underlyingproblem and partly for gross errors or exceedances that needimmediately looking at. By and large the first part isnon-controversial whereas the second, which requires union agreement toidentify the crew involved and talk to them, can be.

Typically a crew in such an incident is taken aside by flt ops andunion representatives to discuss what happened and why. More trainingmay result, or other measures. But all in all, the whole idea of FOQAis to stop accidents happening. And on the whole it works – it’s one ofthe most important safety developments of modern times.

It also depends crucially on having a legislative framework thatprotects all involved from the system being abused to punish or suecrews. And ensures that the data is not subject to freedom of information type requests.

What Colgan are suggesting however is a bit trickier. As I understandit, the idea is that the CVR extract covering the period of an incident- so that would be the cockpit conversation, ATC dialogue, and ambientnoise – could be accessed in the event of an incident.

Expect union opposition. And you can see why. In order for this to workyou’d need to download and retain for at least some period all the CVRdata. Every single word spoken in the cockpit by every single crew. Andthen you’d need rules that said it could only ever be accessed in theevent of an incident.

The thing about the flight data is that it is immensely useful in anaggregated form, even when a significant incident doesn’t occur. Andit’s truly disidentified unless very deliberate steps are taken toidentify it.

I don’t think CVR data is like that. It’s no use in aggregated form -in fact by definition it doesn’t really exist in aggregated form – andit’s instantly susceptible to identification.

On the other hand, would it be useful in the FOQA context. Well, yes, clearly it would.

No doubt Colgan will say that appropriate safeguards can be put inplace, as they were with flight data, but I don’t think they’ll getagreement anytime soon.

And of course the timing is critical. It seems clear that Colgan hassome justifying to do over  the Buffalo crash and will need to showthat it is taking action. I rather doubt that it would be making thissuggestion in any other circumstances.

Remarkable the attention this accident is getting – from the BBC here and the Wall Street  Journal here.


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