Could Politics Impede Aviation’s Safety Record?

Our industry has achieved its stellar safety record through collaboration, and discarding that approach would be fatal—literally.

Printed headline: Safety Steps

 The aviation system works most effectively when all stakeholders are working together, but are there fissures developing that could limit this? Could the industry be moving toward a more partisan, or divisive, approach, similar to what’s happening in politics around the world?

Regulatory differences—and people’s interpretations of them—cause turf wars and slow down deliveries, redeliveries and certifications. Our industry has achieved its stellar safety record through collaboration—and discarding that approach would be fatal—literally.

The Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) established a goal in 1997 to decrease civil fatal accidents by 80% within a decade. “By 2008, the [CAST] had succeeded in reducing the commercial fatality risk by 83% through the voluntary adoption of safety enhancements. That’s a huge number—especially if you look at it this way: Had we done nothing, we would be experiencing a serious incident or accident every two weeks by now,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at the Aeronautical Repair Station Association’s (ARSA) Senior Leadership Conference on Oct. 19.

The collaborative approach among government, industry and labor was paramount to that success, as well as the “data-driven, open and continuous safety conversations” that have reshaped the safety culture of airlines and the way FAA regulates.

To achieve CAST’s goal of reducing risk by another 50% by 2025, Huerta says “we must achieve even deeper levels of trust and transparency.”

Bill Voss, the former International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) air navigation commissioner, noted at the ARSA event that “for years, people have been coming to ICAO with what they believed were unique technical problems addressing their segment of the aviation industry,” such as cross-border aircraft transfer inefficiencies. “What ICAO is now realizing is that many of the problems were not unique or just technical. Many of these specific problems point back to more systemic issues regarding obsolete and inefficient regulatory mechanisms—and a global shortage of regulatory personnel,” says Voss.

Instead of moving incrementally, he says ICAO is “creating big initiatives to help states understand and act upon systemic regulatory personnel shortages.”

However, Voss says ICAO knows “there will never be enough people to do things the way they have always been done” and processes need to become more efficient. So, the organization is “helping states understand how they can delegate some oversight functions without surrendering their responsibilities.” ICAO also is setting up programs to recognize government safety inspectors with specific technical skills to streamline certifications, and is “looking at groups of commercial inspectors who could be specially certified and made available on a contract basis to assist a state with a special need or overwhelming growth,” he says. That growth is significant: IATA projects passenger travel will nearly double—to 7.8 billion passengers per year in 20 years.

These are proactive steps, but the aviation industry’s safety record is only as good as the last inspection, flight or maintenance check. 

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