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Aviation & Safety Standards

Aviation safety standards have forever been under the radar and why not ? While, in effect, accidents and that too fatal ones have been on the decline, for even the occasional ones which take place, the death tolls are phenomenal. The premise is simple; if the goal is to reduce fatal accidents in business aviation, then why not follow the roadmap laid out by the Part 121 airlines ?

The basis of this plan is based on some very sound premises and the results are nothing short of impressive. Employment of this model of an integrated safety system by scheduled airlines in the U.S. has resulted in the evolution of these airlines into one of the world’s safest mode of transportations. To curb fatal accidents in business aviation, the NTSB is now pushing for a wider adoption of safety management systems (SMS) and critical real time flight data monitoring (FDM).

Today, every major U.S. airline is mandated to and employs a robust modern safety system. This integrated approach, anchored by SMS, has many components with each element contributing in its own unique way. Fuelling this system are a number of underlying programs such as FDM, aviation safety action programs (ASAP), and line operations safety audits (LOSA) which work in strong cohesion and result in par excellence scores on the passenger safety front.

Let's have a look at many of the attributes and a few of the nuances of an FDM program. By definition, “Flight data monitoring is the systematic, proactive use of digital flight data from routine flight operations to improve aviation safety within an intrinsically non-punitive and just safety culture.” FDM programs assist an operator in identifying, quantifying, assessing, and addressing operational risk. More detailed information on FDM programs is readily available on a variety of online resources and can be used as a ready reckoner wherever and whenever needed.

 

FDM has a long history. The first airlines began dabbling with in-flight data in the 1960s to validate auto land performance. For offshore helicopters supporting oil and gas, FDM has been a contractual requirement for more than a decade now. In 2004, a number of corporate operators participated in the FSF/NBAA “C-FOQA” trial. Since then, the acceptance of FDM in particular by larger Part 91 flight departments has been growing and is viewed as a best practice. In the U.S., the term FOQA, flight operational quality assurance, is often used interchangeably with FDM. However, in the eyes of the FAA, only those programs “approved” by the agency are considered a FOQA program.

One of the main objectives of an FDM program is to allow operators to compare their standard operating procedures (SOPs) with those actually achieved in everyday line flights. A feedback loop that should be part of an SMS will allow timely corrective action where safety may be compromised by significant deviation from SOPs. FDM is especially good at identifying new hazards, putting into context a given risk or identifying ineffective risk-mitigation strategies.

 

For a smaller organisation, the challenges with implementing an FDM program relate mainly to a limited infrastructure, mixed fleets, recorder equipments and a smaller workforce. According to the UK CAA, this is expected, “as with other aspects of operational safety there are issues with the applicability of large operator type systems into smaller organisations.” None of these issues, however, is insurmountable. FDM programs are scalable and have been successfully implemented in smaller flight ops organisations.

One challenge for a smaller operator is limited resources and infrastructure, especially as it relates to information technology (IT) tasks. Within an FDM program, there are several opportunities to “offload” some duties by outsourcing, primarily as it relates to the technology “grunt” work (IT functions, processing, and validating data). CAP 739 specifically addresses this issue: “Small operators (fewer than 10 aircraft) may find that it is commercially more appropriate to contract analysis services to a third-party.” In the U.S., there are a number of companies that offer these services.

Another challenge relates to small and/or mixed fleets. Statistical variance is an issue with small operators that log fewer flights hours. Such operators are cautioned not to act on small samples of aggregate data, while larger organisations may act on monthly FDM reports. It may be more appropriate for a smaller operator to act on quarterly reports where statistical variance is less of an issue.

All in all, small or large, every aviation firm has moral responsibilities towards the people who fly as part of their payload and as such whichever is the best possible commercially viable solution, needs to be deployed without fail in order to keep a stringent check on safety. In the long run, it's as much in the interest of the transporter as that of the people flying with it !

- Extract from Aviation Safety Management for a "Silicon Valley" based client.

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