Self-regulation is the key to bringing nations with a poor safety record up to standard
This is the year when the industry’s dogs are going to be let off the leash to round up the safety stragglers. That will apply in the rotary-wing world as well as in global commercial aviation, because those who work hard to keep safety standards high are tired of being tarred with the same brush as those who do not.
For airlines, 2005 saw a relapse to the bad old days in terms of the number of passengers and crew killed worldwide. As Flight International went to press, fatalities totalled about 1,200 crew and passengers compared with an annual average for the years 2000 to 2004 of less than 800. Even the annual average for the 10 years to 2004 is below 1,100 fatalities.
The airline figures for 2005 have also bucked recent well-established trends because the number of accidents has also increased – although by a smaller proportion. Until 2005 the figures for fatal accidents, fatalities and hull losses had all shown a consistent decline, according to the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) and Flight International’s own annual safety reviews.
There was a common factor in the major fatal accidents in 2005, however, especially those involving jet airliners: they involved airlines based in countries with a mediocre or poor safety record compared with the world average. Statistics show that, for two decades or more, this unruly sector – particularly airlines in Africa and in parts of Latin America and Asia – were responsible for a small percentage of the world’s air transport activity and a large percentage of its serious accidents.
The FSF says 2005 is likely to have been an unwelcome spike in a graph that will probably continue downwards, both in accident numbers and rates.
During December the International Air Transport Association took a dramatic and unexpected step that will almost certainly accelerate the industry’s attempts to whip into line airlines in nations with lower safety standards: the established IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) – designed as a voluntary, standardised audit that could be used as a tool for checking the safety standard of an airline or its codeshare partners – is going to become a condition for IATA membership within two years. Airlines that fail the IOSA, even with assistance, will lose their membership.
The association’s safety and operations chief, Gunther Matschnigg, says that IATA airline passengers have a right to know that its membership meets or exceeds International Civil Aviation Organisation safety standards. Some states and national agencies have approached IATA for briefings on using the IOSA as a tool in improving the standards of airlines in their countries, says Matschnigg.
As the air transport market has become globally more liberalised and competitive, passengers have been given unprecedented choice of who to fly with, so a reputation for safety has become more of a commercial asset and a poor reputation can, conversely, be a liability. Winning IATA’s stamp of safety approval by passing the IOSA every two years looks likely to become a prerequisite for any airline that wants to be chosen by discriminating passengers, which will be a powerful motivator for safety improvement.
In fact, most signs indicate that what state regulators can do to improve safety in developed economies is limited, and higher standards will be driven more by industry self-regulation – like IATA’s IOSA – and technological improvements that have always been a major factor in raising the safety and reliability bar.
A recent example of this kind of industry self-motivation was the unprecedented International Helicopter Safety Symposium (IHSS) in Montreal, Canada, in late September. The brainchild of the American Helicopter Society (AHS) and the Helicopter Association International (HAI), the IHSS was a statement by the industry that the stagnation of helicopter accident rates for about two decades is not good enough at a time when – in all the other aviation sectors – safety is improving. They resolved at the seminar that the helicopter world definitely has the capability to improve its own safety performance from within – by 80% within 10 years – globally.
Techniques and systems the airlines have used will be employed, new technology will bring its benefits, but above all a safety strategy for the more individualistic and infinitely varied world of rotary-wing operations is being drawn up for launch around March by a new alliance between industry and the regulators to be known as the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST).
It may be more than a year before the benefits of the IHST’s work begin to show, but the safety awareness that its existence will generate, and the energy and optimism it could propagate, has the potential to bring immediate effects.
DAVID LEARMOUNT / OPERATIONS & SAFETY EDITOR