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Using FOQA in Business Aviation: Enhancing Safety by Examining Flight Data
It’s been called the greatest aviation safety invention in the last 20 years. It requires relatively little time, can be added without exorbitant expense, and can start giving valuable operational data, which can lead to enhanced safety, in short order. It can even save flight departments money on maintenance costs.
After many years of use by the airlines, flight operations quality assurance (FOQA, pronounced FOH-qwah) has started gaining traction in business aviation. Corporate flight operations quality assurance (C-FOQA) is a data-management program that collects, scrubs and processes flight data and generates reports that flight departments can use to analyze their operations. The ability to predict high-risk operations, or to pinpoint operational areas that need attention, can be a hugely important tool for any flight department.
“C-FOQA gives flight departments a great opportunity to be proactive and predictive as to potential risk areas,“ said Steve Charbonneau, senior manager, aviation training and standards, Altria Client Services, Inc. “It allows them to know for sure how they are doing. If you have FOQA, there’s no more guessing,“ said Charbonneau, who is also secretary of NBAA’s Safety Committee. ALCS Aviation and Merck’s aviation department were the launch customers for C-FOQA in 2005. “We have come a long way since then,“ notes Charbonneau, who has put together a package of information to help mentor other departments with FOQA implementation.
Doug Carr, NBAA’s vice president, safety, security & regulation, agrees that C-FOQA is a best-practices program. “It feeds so perfectly into safety management systems,“ said Carr. “C-FOQA can be very important as a datapoint for an SMS, a needed element of feedback. Managers can see if SOPs [standard operating procedures] are being adhered to, and use the information for training and education.“
The usefulness of C-FOQA in training is an important element of the program, said J.R. Russell, chairman of Pro-Active Safety Systems and a Boeing 747 pilot who has extensive FOQA experience. “FOQA will help operators learn where to focus their training or even make changes to their SOPs, depending on what FOQA is showing,“ said Russell. “The data you get from FOQA can have a positive effect on pilots, because it increases their awareness of the real safety issues facing their operation and lets them know the details behind procedural changes that occur as a result of C-FOQA data."
Often, FOQA data can determine whether an event really happened. “Recently, we had an engine anomaly which was not on the flight computers,“ said Charbonneau. “We used the FOQA data to show that it was real.“
Bob Vandel, C-FOQA coordinator for Austin Digital, one of the FOQA data processing providers, puts it this way: “You can have an event like, ”what was that?’ and it can be answered as to what exactly it was. There are all kinds of benefits to this.“ Back in 1991, when he was executive vice president of Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), Vandel led the study that brought FOQA to the U.S and led to it being adopted by domestic carriers. Now, Vandel is in the forefront of bringing FOQA to business aviation.
Vandel noted that data shows a majority of accidents and incidents have unstabilized approaches as the primary cause. According to Vandel, one of the best preventive measures is to use a go-around. “Pilots need to know that they will not be penalized for doing go-arounds,“ suggested Vandel. “One flight department was proud of the fact that their go-arounds increased, which meant that they were more aware of their approaches and were willing to initiate a go-around when the approach was unstabilized.“ Without FOQA, the approaches probably would not have come up as a concern, according to Vandel.
The head of a large, flight department in the Northeast said that FOQA is useful in dealing with issues before they get serious. “Our ‘trusted pilot’ brought up an issue at a pilot meeting, and by the time of the next meeting, the issue was gone. The problem just disappeared,“ he said.
The same flight department also made an SOP change due to FOQA data. “We found that pilots were selecting initial flap settings right at the initial flap setting speed, which was flagging a caution,“ said the director. “So we generated an SOP change and set the speed just a little lower. It also has given us a mechanical cost advantage.“
With reams of operational data coming in from every flight, and with business aircraft operators pooling their data into highly informative reports, the usefulness of C-FOQA seems endless – “and we don’t even know yet the full spectrum of what FOQA can offer,“ said Altria’s Charbonneau. “We aren’t even aware yet of all the real advantages.“
How Does C-FOQA Work?
C-FOQA uses a quick access recorder (QAR) to record in-flight data, which must be used with an ARINC 717-capable aircraft. According to Vandel of Austin Digital, it can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to purchase the lightweight QAR and get it installed with the proper software, if the aircraft is not already equipped. Then, it’s a simple process to download the raw data from the QAR, encrypt it and transmit it to Austin Digital or another FOQA provider, where the information gets processed, analyzed and turned into useful reports. Most companies send data from each of their aircraft once a month; companies are charged an annual fee per aircraft for the FOQA service.
The data can be customized for a particular parameter or event if a company desires. Highly accurate reports on operational data – such as unstabilized approaches, landing performance, flight operations events and maintenance events – are already included in the data. Many dozens of datapoints on such specifics as final flap extension, reverse thrust while slow, high rate of descent, and MMO (max operating mach) already provide flight departments with a plethora of highly detailed operational information.
The Need for a Gatekeeper
“Gatekeeper“ is the industry term for the person – often one of the pilots, usually not the chief pilot or department director – in the flight department who is responsible for administering the C-FOQA program. Normally, departments get quarterly reports – stripped of all individual pilot- and flight-identifying information – and one annual report, which contains an aggregate summary of all C-FOQA data that is useful for comparing and benchmarking. The gatekeeper reports on the department’s FOQA data at pilot meetings, noting any trends or exceedances if they arise.
“It’s important for pilots to understand that the data is stripped, so individual flights and pilots can’t be identified,“ said NBAA’s Carr. “Core to FOQA is the notion that the data is not going to be used in a punitive fashion.“ Vandel of Austin Digital agrees: “The gatekeeper is usually a trusted pilot who cannot break confidentiality. It must be totally confidential to work.“
Steve Thorpe – assistant chief pilot, airplanes at Merck Sharp & Dohme and the gatekeeper for the department’s FOQA program – said that he made clear from the outset that the program is not a “gotcha“ exercise. “I let them know that a trigger mechanism is not going to be a half-knot over speed for a couple seconds,“ said Thorpe. “I talk to them about what the program is not about as much as what it is about.“
Merck’s 12 pilots have been supportive of the program, and Thorpe says its usefulness has primarily been to identify trends, as well as to enhance pilot awareness. “FOQA has been an opportunity to promote or reaffirm our procedures, including our no-fault go-around policy,“ said Thorpe. “Overall, the lesson for us has been that we are operating within our parameters and are doing a good job.“
Thorpe sees the integration of Merck’s FOQA program into its SMS as his next challenge. “Obviously, they complement each other,“ he said.