Five Big Issues that Could Make the Next Airline Crash the Worst Ever
A recent New York Times feature story -- Airline Industry at Its Safest Since the Dawn of the Jet Age -- began this way: “Flying on a commercial jetliner has never been safer.”
All frequent flyers certainly welcome that news! And, as a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, I am encouraged that my work to improve airline safety may have helped.
However, do you realize that airline safety still involves risk? The next crash could easily be the biggest in history, killing over 1,000 people.
The Airbus A-380 will seat up to 853 passengers. Deaths-per-crash could easily exceed 1,000 should it collide with any other typical airliner.
Many people believe that safety implies “no risk.” If something is safe, it must be free of risk. That can be a deadly assumption.
There are four vital differences between safety and being risk-free.
- Safety looks backward, risk looks forward. Safety is an attained condition – something proven by history. That’s how current airline safety can be measured against previous airline safety. In other words, safety looks backward at accident rates while risk looks forward at potential deviation, threat, or potential loss that can impact – actually, determine -- airline safety as shown in this figure. Have you ever heard, “It was the first time this has ever happened”?
- Safety is only one component of risk. Safety has many cousins that contribute to risk as shown in the following “risk flower.” Achieving airline safety requires compromise, adaptation, ranking, support and recognition of those other eight risk elements. Thus, the current merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways introduces new risks that influence airline safety, such as resolving pilot seniority, reorganizing routes, crew adaptation to different aircraft, and revised flight scheduling to name a few.
- Safety is never static. Airline safety is constantly in the process of being both created and modified by many different forces. Aircraft are aging, air traffic control is changing, weather is unpredictable, airlines are reorganizing, airports are being updated, and technology is impacting all those factors. Every one of those aspects have associated risks.
- Risk must be identified, evaluated, ranked, and controlled. Anything short of this effort is not managing risk. Future airline safety depends on it. Should it be ignored, randomly addressed, or assumed to be non-existent, airline safety will be degraded.
Looking forward, there are at least five serious issues affecting airline safety that must be systematically addressed for their inherent risk:
- Larger Aircraft. The trend in new airliners is increased passenger capacity. Whether airline safety is measured as fatal crashes per year, deaths per flight, or deaths per flight hour, there is another safety indicator of concern – deaths per crash. The Airbus A-380 with its full, two-deck economy configuration will seat up to 853 passengers. The deaths-per-crash could easily exceed 1,000 should it collide with any other typical airliner. Even if the A-380 experienced fire while on the ground, imagine emergency evacuation from two levels via slides for the elderly, infirmed and small children. The last fatal crash in the U.S. was Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo in February 2009 – wherein only 50 died.
- World-wide financial crisis. The financial challenges of this decade have placed airlines in jeopardy, forcing many into bankruptcy or mergers. Four major U.S. airline mergers have recently occurred, creating considerable risk for airline safety. Not only are both passengers and employees losers in this trend, but airline attitude, motivation, and creativity atrophy. Example: airline pilots over-flying Minneapolis for over an hour in 2009 while focused exclusively on discussing their future after a merger.
- Machines replacing humans. The transfer of aircraft piloting responsibility from humans to machines increases risk. Technological sophistication favors efficiency (e.g., fuel conservation) over judgmental involvement. Example: Air France 447 crash in 2009 due to pilot inability to comprehend automated but inadequate flight status.
- Cyber-terrorism. The threat of cyber-terrorism is on the rise, and airline operations are vulnerable to potential disruption of networked infrastructure in communications, air traffic control, routing, and weather forecasting. All airborne airliners (1,000+ over the U.S. at any time) are in a 3-dimensional environment that depends on separation, guidance, and location information external to the aircraft.
- Legalization of marijuana. The most commonly used illicit drug will increasingly impact pilot performance. Effects of its use include distorted perception (sights, sounds, time, touch) as well as memory and loss of coordination. In addition, marijuana use can produce anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic. There are no accepted rules or means for detection as there are with alcohol consumption to govern pilot usage.
Though this list of airline risk factors is not exhaustive, it should alert those responsible for airline safety that only with systematic, all-encompassing, global management of risk will the current, admirable status of airline safety be maintained.
Managing risk always demands looking forward – and with a methodology for doing so.
Omega Systems Group Incorporated is a Washington-based consulting firm that identifies, ranks and manages risks -- systematically. Business Week has described OSGI chairman Vernon L. Grose (left) as a "founding father" of the application of systems methodology to managing risk.