Canada’s transportation chief recently announced plans to overhaul regulations governing pilot duty times, regulations that have not been updated in nearly two decades. The proposed revisions are not however, as stringent as what many safety advocates were hoping for.  One of the main concerns is the lack of ‘time of day sensitivity,’ a purported loophole that allows air carriers to work their pilots for up to 14 hours a day. Canada’s Air Transport Association (ATAC), an industry trade group representing many local airlines, had opposed such a provision arguing that Canada already has “the highest safety record in the world.”

ATAC’s position is not without merit. In 2014, the nation’s aviation watchdog found that over 4 million hours of flying activity produced just 212 accidents. Moreover, only 34 of those involved commercially operated aircraft. These figures are impressive but hardly unique to the great white north. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), more than 38 million commercial flights took to the skies in 2014, the highest on record. Yet the global jet accident rate (measured as the number of aircraft lost per 1 million flights) was the lowest in history. Such rarity is the result of technological progress. Improvements in propulsion mechanics, structural engineering and cockpit design mean that accidents today are few and far between. It also means that proving regulations cause calamity is difficult because technology lessens the potential fallout. Pilots working 14-hour days may be an alarming prospect, but the highly automated nature of flying today allows aircraft flown by those pilots to still reach their destinations without incident.

Tackling this issue means rethinking how aviation safety is measured. The quantitative focus on accident statistics alone must give way to more qualitative questions being asked in the absence of accidents. Did a tired pilot incorrectly execute a maneuver? Was a bumpy landing performed due to inexperience? Did workload contribute to the selection of an improper autopilot setting? Asking such questions is important given that according to IATA, “future safety gains will come increasingly from analyzing data from the more than 38 million flights that operate safely every year, rather than just the handful of flights where something goes wrong.”

Efforts are underway to do just that. For example, the United States’ Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program facilitates data sharing to proactively identify and address safety concerns before accidents occur. So does Europe’s Internal Occurrence Reporting System. And IATA’s Global Aviation Data Management program provides analysis of trends in the air transport chain. Still lacking however, are regulatory efforts that scrutinize airline safety using such data. In fact, many regulators like Transport Canada, still view safety solely through the lens of passenger fatalities and aircraft damage. In the absence of either, a carrier’s record is seen as being sound. This needs to change.

Safety advocates must also accept that as technology gets better, the once clear link between cause and consequence is poised to get murkier. Canada’s duty time regulations may well be in the words of one pilot, “vastly outdated” and “among the worst in the world.” Proving so however, is another matter altogether.