Current-generation jet airliners have achieved a historic safety performance high of less than one fatal accident in ten million flights, according to Harry Nelson, adviser to Airbus' head of product safety. The challenge, says Nelson, is what to do to improve even further.
This ratio - one in 10-7 - has a certain engineering significance in that safety-critical components in civil aircraft must have a tested failure rate better than this if they are to receive certification; it was never actually intended to apply to an entire airframe in operation, given that it contains many components and is controlled by human beings whose failure rate cannot be tested in a comparable way.
Nelson, speaking at the 17-18 September Flightglobal Flight Safety 2012 conference at London Heathrow, was talking about what he called 4th generation aircraft, in which he includes all Airbus and Boeing models still in production today and the latest products from manufacturers like Embraer and Bombardier.
Nelson says there is still some "low hanging fruit" available to help reduce accidents further. His list includes: the need to stop tailwind landings when they are carried out for reasons other than safety; to develop satellite-based required navigation performance approaches wherever circling approaches are still the norm; to harmonise and simplify standard instrument departures and arrivals; to ensure that pilots fully know and understand the basic physics of flying; to ensure all runways comply with International Civil Aviation Organisation recommendations and have surface grooving; and to standardise and improve runway condition reporting by air traffic controllers.
In the longer term, Nelson told the conference, the industry should optimise the collection, co-ordination, dissemination and use of safety data globally.
He also adds that pilot training needs, at ab-initio level, "to be anchored in Newtonian physics". Type and recurrent training needs to "keep in step" with the capabilities of high-tech cockpits and modern aircraft performance, and airlines should adopt evidence-based training, he says. Training delivery and the tools used to do it should also be regularly reviewed for today's young people, says Nelson, observing that "digital natives learn visually".
Finally, Nelson says training to deal with the emergence of loss of control accidents as a peculiarly modern phenomenon should concentrate on "what it takes to be in control".