Voluntary Reporting Programs Contribute to Aviation Industry’s Stellar Safety Results

In the EHS&Q industry it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the “doom and gloom.” While it’s important to identify areas of concern and drive improvement, it’s also necessary to celebrate our achievements. It is equally possible to learn from successes as it is to learn from failures. As a model for continuous improvement in safety, the aviation industry offers some unique insights.

In the United States alone, more than two million passengers now board more than 30,000 flights every day. Yet the rate of serious incidents and fatalities has been steadily decreasing as the industry takes advantage of new technology and implements comprehensive safety programs. In fact, 2012 was the safest year for air travel since 1945, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent database located in the Netherlands,

Globally, in 2012 there were just 23 deadly accidents and 475 fatalities – less than half the 1,147 deaths reported in 2000. Arnold Barnett, an M.I.T. professor of statistics, has estimated that in the United States you would have to board a plane every day for an average of 123,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash.

Cutting-edge technology has played a large role in these improvements – advanced navigation and warning technology in particular – but more interesting for safety professionals is the industry’s commitment to proactive safety management.

Rather than relying on accident investigations to guide safety improvements, voluntary reporting programs have resulted in safety issues being resolved before they result in an accident, through corrective action rather than discipline. One excellent example of this is the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system, created by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2007. ASIAS now has 44 members and uses aggregate, protected data from industry and government voluntary reporting programs to proactively find safety issues, identify safety enhancements, and measure the effectiveness of solutions.

This sharing of information has allowed the industry to improve training programs and collect information on hazards that is critical to preventing future accidents. It’s an inspirational, cooperative problem-solving initiative. Everyone benefits.

However, as Chesley B. Sullenberger III reminds us, “It’s important not to define safety as the absence of accidents.” Sullenberger saved 155 passengers’ lives when he made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009, after both of his plane’s engines lost power.

Past successes are no reason to become complacent, as the industry faces many challenges ahead. Air traffic continues to grow and congestion is steadily increasing in airports. Yet by working together, airlines are well-organized to face those challenges. It makes you wonder: what kinds of improvements would we see if other industries took a page from their playbook?

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