General Aviation: It’s the Right Time to Adopt FDM (Part 1)
Let’s face it. There are often endless reasons to forgo adopting new technology. In an industry where no two days are the same, the constant juggling required while operating an aviation business makes it easy for some priorities, like updating safety management systems (SMS), to fall by the wayside.
It’s easy to do when things seem to be working alright as they are.
After all, installing new technology can be a lot of work, expensive, and time-consuming.
The barriers keeping technology like flight data monitoring (FDM) from General Aviation are not new. Unless you’re a commercial airliner, justifying a high cost across an entire fleet is enough to keep an operator away from adopting something new – even if it would also drastically change the way they looked at their operations.
From Black Boxes to Sensors
FDM has gradually increased in use across aviation. It’s a natural progression from the black boxes of the past, which provided a way for aircraft operators to investigate accidents. As an investigative tool, though, it was often complex and technical.
FDM of the past was a reactive approach to safety. Only after the black box was collected and the flight data downloaded could operators infer why an incident took place.
Over the last 20 years, FDM, or Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) as it’s known in North America, has become the most highly regarded and potentially effective safety initiative to reach aviation in the last 20 years.
The only problem was that the cost and complexity of FDM programmes only made it primarily accessible for top-tier airliners.
Analysis of FDM shows its potential to act as a tremendous anticipatory tool for investigating root causes and risks associated with human behaviour.
Instead of an ad-hoc approach to monitoring flights for safety purposes, FDM gave airliners a systematic approach to measure risk.
The result? Commercial airliners continue to operate at the lowest rates of safety incidents in history.
The Risks are in the Data
Despite advances in data-collecting technology, general aviation has not yet had an entry point into the wealth of valuable insights that FDM can provide.
While FDM is a critical component of SMS in airliners, it is not a requirement for on-demand charters and commuter flights, known as Part-135 certified flights.
Increases in accidents across Part-135 aviation operators in recent years have caused the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to include ‘Improve the Safety of Part-135 Aircraft Flight Operations’ in their Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for 2019-2020.
NTSB’s decision to recommend the adoption of SMS and FDM programmes in general aviation, came after a 2015 accident of a chartered business jet into an apartment complex while on the descent to a local airport. Their investigation found no SMS or FDM present – two safety components that NTSB believes would have prevented many of the incidents they have investigated over the last 20 years.
In Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking to Applied Safety, Nancy G. Leveson notes that aircraft operators tend to move to a higher state of risk under various performance pressures until accidents become inevitable.
In other words, although time passing creates an assumption that all is well, it doesn’t mean that the potential risk has changed. Risk only increases until a significant loss occurs.
With 70% of Part-135 accidents attributed to human error, risks may show up in operational data - if operators routinely took notice.
As Leveson mentions, there is nothing random about systematic factors that have not been corrected and have existed over time.
The only problem is that the technology that records and relays this type of valuable information was not made with general aviation in mind.
It was never accessible enough – until now...