In recent years, we have been blessed with good news about aviation safety. The safest period since the jet age began shows we certainly are doing some things right! Improvements in mechanical reliability have been outstanding. Engines now stay on wing until they reach their cycle limits. Reliability rates have reached very high levels. Great technological improvements are blended with good policies, regulations and training, and a focus on human factors improvements, many of which were gleaned from the rigorous study of accidents causes.
But I have this nagging feeling that now, more than ever, we must be even more vigilant and apply intelligent and coherent policies to keep this trend going. Part of my feeling comes from the recent concerns about automation and basic airmanship skills of pilots. The same concern can be extrapolated into the maintenance world. How do we prepare for complicated technical issues when we are faced with mostly singular events that may appear unconnected? Are we at a point where dependence on technology has left us without the training and experience to recognize the significance of issues?
During most of my career, I did not need Pareto analyses to determine my top technical problems. Every day, I was faced with them, or my friends at the other legacy airlines would call and ask if we are seeing these problems. It was a smaller world then, with more technical problems and much less dependence on information technology.
The world has changed. Technology improvements have allowed the proliferation of airlines around the globe, without significant safety deterioration. But while the regulatory environment, for the most part, still demands the same requirements from all, the technical capability of the operators today varies widely. So in this new world of digital aircraft and technical managers who have lived only in this reliable digital realm, have we reached the point of being too reliable?
Of course not! But policies, procedures and regulations do need to be updated to reflect today's reality. If we are to stay on a the path of continuous improvement, we must reflect on more standardization, broader transparency of technical issues, and greater integration and distribution of information, Here are some things we should consider:
•Is today's process of surveillance and analysis, which depends on each airline being individually responsible, still relevant when there are very few problems to survey and analyze? I believe we must expand to a broader data pool including OEMs, MROs and data from multiple airlines. There should be tiers of technical capability for airlines, with some able to rely on their own systems and others depending on outside companies to aid them.
•Is reliability causing boredom? Are we inundated with data and not information? When we deal with only a few events, or what may appear to be unrelated ones, human factors are critical. We need to study and better understand human behavior in dealing with reams of data and how to glean information from that data. The whole area of how information is transmitted to maintenance personnel—especially how we use manuals—is critical. We need to review the manuals, the systems used to present information and the length of cycles to update them. Does it really make sense for each airline to have its own maintenance manual, or should they be standard with some centralized way to digitally update them?
•Similarly, should operating specifications remain the sole purview of the airline, or should they expand to include MROs and OEMs? Should data-sharing and pooling be expanded to multiple formal data venues? In the past, common regional airline specifications were used by many carriers to manage their operating specifications such as maintenance programs. This idea may have value especially for many of the low-cost operators and lessors. The technical data sources of the OEMs need to be more fully integrated into the airlines' ops specs.
•Will new companies be able to fill in the support gaps that many new airlines have? As we understand the impediments that regulations, litigation or traditions have placed on entrepreneurial opportunities, we will see these areas could grow and expand, just as global distribution systems did.
We are on a cusp of a new world with the second or third generation of digital airplanes, operated and maintained by a new generation of men and women. We owe it to them and the passengers to update safety systems for a new age.
Valeika advises airlines, OEMs, private-equity firms and lessors. He was' senior vice president for technical operations.