The aviation industry is a pioneer in safety management and has developed sophisticated systems and protocols that reach far beyond the demands of transportation. One of the most important of these innovations has been the creation and utilization of data-sharing programs, which have been recognized for their role in the dramatic improvement in commercial aviation safety over the past two decades and are now positioned to aid general aviation as it prepares to meet broader safety management systems (SMS) requirements from the FAA.
Through most of aviation’s storied history, safety improvements have been borne from the diagnoses of accidents, a reactive approach that is triggered when mishaps occur. Data sharing, in contrast, facilitates a prognostic approach to safety, where data are examined to discover precursors, trends and root causes of past accidents to rectify potential problems before
they cause new accidents.
The importance of data sharing’s contribution to aviation safety cannot be overstated. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson is a vocal advocate, and he used his first public address as administrator to highlight the success of shared data initiatives.
In 2020, Dickson also cited the power of data-sharing programs in a speech announcing the FAA’s intention to publish a proposed rulemaking early in 2022 to extend SMS requirements to air taxi and air tour operators, repair stations and PMA parts providers.
“If the general aviation industry could learn a lesson from the airlines, it is that sharing safety information is one way to bring our industry’s accident rate down.”
Don Baldwin President and CEO, Baldwin Safety & Compliance
Tangible Benefits for Operators
For Don Baldwin, president and CEO of Baldwin Safety & Compliance, the success of data sharing is irrefutable.
“The incredibly low rate of accidents in the airline industry is a sharp contrast to the rates we see in general aviation [overall], and this is due in part to well-established safety and quality management systems and the sharing of safety information,” said Baldwin. “If the general aviation industry could learn a lesson from the airlines, it is that sharing safety information is one way to bring our industry’s accident rate down.”
The collecting and sharing of data also provide a broader and more effective dimension for safety management, notes Baldwin.
“There are many more close calls, near misses and incidents than there are actual accidents, so collecting data from these aspects of aviation safety and sharing them with the rest of our community can provide us with a new level of understanding of how these can potentially evolve into an accident without the exposure to fatalities or costly repairs,” he explained.
“There are a lot of benefits to applying SMS, but the collection and sharing of data are certainly some of the most crucial, and it will become more important once we see a reduction in accidents,” Baldwin added.
SMS is the key to facilitating aviation safety improvement, says Steve Bruneau, vice president of aviation services at Polaris Aero.
“By having an SMS, you are putting in place a means of capturing the safety data of your flight operation in a way that you can now manage. Improvement comes from managing what you measure,” explained Bruneau.
“Once you can capture data, you can then break it down and turn that into safety insights,” he said.
SMS also provides the platform for an operator to eventually share data, notes Bruneau.
“For any operator, the first step is to manage and measure their own data to improve their safety processes and protocols.”
Steve Bruneau Vice President of Aviation Services, Polaris Aero
“For any operator, the first step is to manage and measure their own data to improve their safety processes and protocols,” he said. “Once that is in place, operators then can contribute their data to the improved safety of the industry by sharing.
“Sharing also comes full circle,” continued Bruneau. “By benchmarking themselves against industry data, flight departments can then gain additional insights into their own operations.” Flight departments need to work with all data available to them to advance their own safety program, adds Bruneau.
“Data by itself, or without context, might tell you the wrong story; it’s only when you take that data and dissect it down to the root cause (or “why”) that you get the full safety story,” he concluded.
Good Sources of Data
Data collection and sharing takes many forms, from flight data monitoring (which is also known as Flight Operations Quality Assurance, or FOQA) and programs hosted by NASA to regional associations’ platforms and roundtables at a local airport, and each provides its own distinct approach to aviation safety.
The Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), one of the national initiatives heralded by FAA’s Dickson, for instance, uses a review process to evaluate safety-of-flight issues.
“Each report is investigated by an event review committee that determines corrective actions based on a non-disciplinary approach to flight safety,” explained Bryan Burns, president of the Air Charter Safety Foundation, a 501(c)(3) independent non-profit organization that, in cooperation with the FAA, administers a third-party managed ASAP program for general aviation.
“ASAP is unique in the sense that it’s protecting the pilots and mechanics in ways that encourage them to participate so that safety issues can be identified, evaluated and prevented. It’s about fixing the problem and not blaming the messenger,” noted Burns.
There also is a common bond between ASAP and other data-collection and data-sharing programs, added Burns.
“We can determine that if a safety issue is happening to you, it could also be happening at other operators, and by learning from our mistakes or the mistakes of others, we can improve safety industry-wide.”
Another national shared data initiative praised by Dickson – the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program – approaches safety through the lens of “big data,” aggregating vast amounts of aviation information from reporting systems across all sectors of the industry – from FOQA to de-identified ASAP data – to identify safety trends and provide an unparalleled overview of aviation safety.
“ASIAS allows operators to benchmark their own safety programs by providing access to a much bigger data set, while also allowing them to contribute to the greater good of the industry by incorporating their data to the bigger pool,” says Jeff Mittelman, founder of Mittelman Aviation Solutions and former lead for the general aviation side of ASIAS at MITRE, the trusted third party contracted by the FAA to manage and safeguard the de-identified database.
“ASIAS allows you to look at common safety themes, such as the aircraft type you operate or the airports you fly into, and, for business operators, you get the added benefit to accessing all of the data airlines provide to ASIAS,” explained Mittelman, who noted that the massive amounts of centralized data aggregated and de-identified by ASIAS are particularly useful for the general aviation community.
“The smaller you are as an operator, the more you get out of it,” he said.
Sharing Critical to Safety Management
The benefits of data sharing are indisputable, and every business aircraft operator should consider data collection and sharing as an integral part of their safety management system, declared NBAA’s senior manager of safety and flight operations, Mark Larsen, CAM.
“Every operator is at a different stage of their safety journey,” explained Larsen, “and we encourage every operator to progress along that journey. It is without question that a robust safety system is critical to the success and growth of the business aviation industry.
“The sharing of data – be it on a local, regional or national platform – is a crucial part of that process that every operator should consider once they have established a viable and effective SMS,” Larsen concluded.
Learn More About Safety Data Sharing
Below are links to web resources and documents that can help you better understand the scope and value of some of the leading safety programs available.