U.S. Safety Incidents Trigger Broad Search Of Possible Factors

American aircraft takes off

Surface safety is a key focus of the risk-mitigation push.

Credit: joepriesaviation.net

Commercial aviation safety professionals will reexamine and refine risk-mitigation strategies as part of an FAA push to curb a troubling trend of serious incidents that suggest developing cracks in the industry’s solid safety foundation.

Industry groups kicked off the FAA-led initiative at a March 15 summit held to frame the issue and discuss possible responses. While signs of increased risk are evident across civil aviation, leaders focused on six runway incursions since Jan. 1 involving air transport aircraft as warning signs. “These events are concerning,” FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen said at the summit. “The question is, what do they mean?”

  • Summit focuses on 2023 runway incursions
  • Risk identification and mitigation efforts receive jump-starts
  • Successful CAST program expected to play a key role

Industry will spend the next several months trying to find out. One immediate step is using existing safety programs both to flag risks and take action. The Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST)—the FAA-industry group that uses aggregated data to identify risks and develop mitigation strategies—is best positioned to deliver short-term results. But the program, the primary driver behind lowering the U.S. commercial airline fatality risk since its formation in the mid-1990s, must adapt.

“I believe that historians will look at the strides we’ve made under CAST as one of the greatest successes of the modern transportation age,” Nolen said, referring to a record that includes zero passenger fatalities in 10 of the last 12 calendar years. “But we must also ask ourselves if the CAST process is nimble enough to help us reach a goal of eliminating the rare but still concerning incidents we’ve seen recently.”

CAST participants remain confident in the program. “It has served us well over the past two decades,” Flight Safety Foundation President and CEO and CAST member Hassan Shahidi tells Aviation Week. “But moving forward, it needs to adapt to what we’re seeing.”

The March 15 event will help drive strategic discussions at subsequent CAST meetings. “We will definitely be taking the outcome of this and rolling it into the work program of CAST coming up, and seeing how CAST can find ways to start looking for solutions and mitigations,” Shahidi says.

Summit participants were reluctant to identify specific links between the incursions or several other notable events, including a December turbulence encounter near Hawaii and a pair of wrong-runway landings earlier in 2022. They agreed, however, that the industry’s strong safety record brings with it the risk of complacency. “The absence of a fatality or accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at the summit.

Participants identified several steps that would eventually increase safety. They include hiring more air traffic controllers and obtaining stable, consistent funding for infrastructure. More and better training is another high-priority item.

But other issues are likely more to blame for the recent occurrences. Several participants noted as a significant disruption the unprecedented demand trends that saw most airlines stop flying in the spring of 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and then start to ramp up just a few months later. The whipsaw upset training routines and, perhaps most critically, led thousands of experienced employees, including senior pilots and other key front-line workers, to take voluntary retirement. The resulting shake-up in the ranks has created a training backlog (many experienced staff also serve as instructors) and means some new hires are being fast-tracked to roles normally held by more seasoned workers.

Some airlines also have changed how they schedule staff. At one U.S. major carrier, pilots now often have 3 hr. between flights at hubs—much longer than previously. A captain there suggested the move makes last-minute reassignments easier, giving the airline flexibility to respond to schedule interruptions.

“You’ll come into a hub city and, all of a sudden, whatever you were planning on doing, it’s probably not your plan going forward, because now they need you to go somewhere different,” the pilot tells Aviation Week. While reassignments are common, they increase the chance of distractions or unintentional errors, the captain says. “If I had known I was going to [the newly assigned airport], I would have prepped for it, as opposed to going through the manuals en route.”

While the FAA is focused mainly on short-term strategies, long-term changes are in the works. The agency plans to mandate installation on new aircraft—and possibly on the existing fleet—of cockpit voice recorders (CVR) that can capture at least 25 hr. Requiring such CVRs on large commercial aircraft would harmonize the FAA with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and International Civil Aviation Organization. It also will help fill an increasingly relevant gap in U.S. incident investigation and risk-mitigation strategies. Current FAA standards require 2-hr. durations, and guidance about preserving recorder data focuses on postflight actions, such as pulling circuit breakers to stop recorders after immediately recognizable “reportable incidents.”

Problems with this approach have been evident for years. Inflight emergencies that last longer than the CVR’s duration can result in key data loss, for instance. Occurrences such as runway incursions or losses of separation are not always recognized right away, and the aircraft involved may continue on, wiping out valuable information in the process.

The issue is hampering probes of the six runway incidents highlighted at the summit. In each case, CVR data was overwritten, Homendy confirmed, leaving investigators without key information to help explain what happened.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.