Comment: Devil and the details

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This story is sourced from Flight International
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At its high-level safety conference in Montreal, the International Civil Aviation Organisation is pursuing grand objectives.

The risk associated with "big picture" intentions, however, is that they do not engage the thousands of individual industry people worldwide who need to manage the multitude of small changes that will bring improved aviation safety on a global scale. Fortunately ICAO realises this, so it is using individual accident case studies as proof of the many existing weaknesses in what is, structurally at least, a robust global system.

This detail is what, it is to be hoped, will send the world's national aviation authority leaders back home from Montreal with a reinvigorated faith that safety can be improved, and a clear vision of what their local and regional priorities should be.

ICAO's big-picture theme is that states need to adopt a pro-active, safety-management system mindset in carrying out their safety oversight tasks. The old system of controlling safety by applying additional regulation has gone as far as it usefully can, says ICAO, as accident rates have stopped improving.

But to run a safety management system demands good safety reporting and data-driven priorities. So the other ICAO theme is the need to facilitate the supply and exchange of information to enable national authorities to keep their fingers on the safety pulse of their local industry, then to supply the derived data to ICAO to provide a global health picture. ICAO's target is for the weakest states to cut their serious accident rates from more than four times the global average to no more than twice.

Finally, ICAO wants the business aviation community to share data centrally, a sign that the sector has now been accepted globally as having come of age.

For a case study, ICAO is using the Air France 447 loss over the Atlantic to show that oceanic traffic surveillance - and the standard of communication between neighbouring air navigation service providers - is still so primitive that it took 4h for emergency services to begin acting on the aircraft's disappearance.

ICAO is also looking askance at what happens in cockpits that still allows aircraft - like the Spanair Boeing MD-82 at Madrid in 2008 - to crash fatally because they take off without flaps selected despite checklists and alerting systems.

ICAO is using these - and other - examples to demonstrate that a robust global safety support structure still has serious weak points.