If anybody had any illusions that the airline industry could relax about its safety record, events of the last few days should have dispelled them.

In the space of ten days, at least three large airliners and one small one were destroyed in the course of regular services on normal routes between established airports in largely known and predictable conditions. If, after almost 80 years of regular public-transport air services, such a spate of accidents can occur, then clearly the efforts of the industry and regulators to improve safety have not been successful.

There are people who argue that, were it not for the high-profile nature of aircraft accidents, the current accident rate (better than that for other forms of transport) would be quite acceptable. Alas, such a relaxed view of safety is not tenable: if accident rates get no better, then the predicted doubling of air traffic by 2010 will lead to a doubling of absolute accident numbers. Even if the accident rate is now on a reasonably acceptable plateau for some, the thought of a major hull-loss per week in the future must be unacceptable.

That is why the seven-point strategy put forward by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for halving hull-loss rates by 2004 is not only laudable, but vital. The problem lies in whether or not it is achievable.

One of the seven IATA points is the creation of a "flight-safety buddy" scheme, under which major airlines which have good safety records would take smaller ones which do not (or which come from less-safe regions of the world) under their wings. The hope and intent is that the Big Buddies will, through example, help their Little Buddies to improve their safety records. The principle is fine: the practice might be less so.

Commitment and resources are both necessary for improving safety, but neither is sufficient on its own. The trouble with the buddy system is that it may be able to improve the former, but it can do little about the latter.

Indeed, even improving the commitment may be far more difficult if the organisation doing the buddying has far more resources than the one being buddied. The natural reaction of any small organisation on being shown how to do something by a large one is one of "-well, of course we could do that if we had the resources, but we haven't, so we can't".

In general, the airlines with the worst safety records are ones based in poor economies and which are themselves short of resources. Often they are owned or are overseen by governments which have higher priorities than maintaining or monitoring air safety. What those airlines need is not seeing how the best in the world can do it with all the resources available to them, but seeing how those with similar resources but better records have achieved it.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a large airline, seemingly well-resourced, will be any better at managing its commitment to safety than is a smaller, less-well-resourced organisation. Indeed, if some experiences of the old centralised state-run enterprises in the Soviet Union and China were anything to go by, size could be safety disbenefit.

In contrast, some smaller carriers have devised highly effective systems for promoting and maintaining safety which, by relying more on common sense than bureaucracy, would be far more relevant to a resource-strapped airline struggling to do well without the support of an efficient and effective national regulator.

In effect, IATA might be on the right track with its buddy system - but it might be choosing the wrong buddies. The ideal mentor is one which has common experiences with the organisation being mentored. Thus, the best airline to help a small South American airline with safety concerns should be another small South American airline which is doing better.

That again is fine in principle but difficult in practice. It is easy for a big Northern-hemisphere airline to find the resources to devote to a smaller buddy, and for it to understand why such help could be so important to the industry as a whole. It is much less easy for a smaller Southern-hemisphere airline to do the same: perhaps the real opportunity for the big Western airlines in the buddy system is to use their greater resources to help the good smaller airlines be better buddies.

Source: Flight International