US airlines should be compelled to share their safety monitoring data with the Federal Aviation Administration if they choose to maintain a flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) programme, the agency proposes.

FOQA is a system for monitoring data from flight data recorders (FDRs) for operational anomalies, but the FAA says individual airline FOQA programmes must be FAA-approved. Its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) follows a proposal last year to protect voluntarily assembled safety information from subpoena in litigation, because data protection would be essential for encouraging airline participation and data-sharing.

Only eight US airlines have FOQA programmes, including Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways. The NPRM should resolve legal issues that have kept more US airlines from embracing FOQA efforts. Many US carriers have shunned the concept, while large numbers of non-US airlines have embraced it voluntarily because they operate from countries with a less litigious culture.

The concept was pioneered by the UK Civil Aviation Authority in the 1970s. The data can cut operating costs through monitoring fuel efficiency and engine condition, and providing crew performance and flight operations anomalies.

FOQA programmes have yielded important safety advances. For example, an FAA-sponsored FOQA study produced data that have been used to improve terminal area approach procedures at more than a dozen airports worldwide. FOQA has documented unusual autopilot disconnects, ground proximity warning system alerts, excessive take-off angles, unstable landing approaches and hard landings.

The FAA says such data will not be used against airlines and pilots for enforcement actions except in "egregious" cases. Pilots and airline executives have been nervous about the potential abuse of FOQA data by regulators to prosecute and by lawyers to establish liability after an accident or incident.

Source: Flight International