What’s really the safety of an airline? We’ve heard that flying is safer than driving (and taking a bath) but how do we know that OUR flight isn’t next to go?

US airlines are actively monitoring the safety of their airline and there are dedicated teams inside of an airline to identify risks and hazards so that the airline can mitigate them before they can cause an accident. This pursuit of managing safety stems mostly from airlines not wanting to crash, but also because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told them to by requiring them to implement a Safety Management System (SMS). “An SMS is an organization-wide comprehensive and preventive approach to managing safety” that “includes a safety policy, formal methods for identifying hazards and mitigating risk, and promotion of a positive safety culture,” (AC 120-92B).

Are you yawning yet? Well, AC 120-92B (aka the Advisory Circular that put this fire under the airlines’ booties) is 80 pages of technical report goodness but assuming you don’t want to read it, I’ll break it down for you. Here we go.

Basically, the FAA gave the airlines SMS as a tool to help them be safe. A couple of years later, they then made it against the law to not be a safety-conscious commercial airline by requiring that they use SMS. Clever, right?
Essentially, SMS breaks down into 4 parts, most of which are really common sense (shocker) so we’ll breeze through some easily grasped concepts real quick:

The first and last pillars are Safety Policy and Safety Promotion

Basically, you wanna define how safe you want to be and how you plan to do it and then you wanna tell the people (the employees who are doing the actual ‘being safe’) about it. Easy.

The second pillar is Safety Risk Management (SRM)

SRM is about assessing and anticipating risk before the airline makes a decision. Like, the airline is making a policy change, let’s think about if this will affect the safe operation of the flight first. Really just ground shaking stuff guys.

By now you’re probably slapping your hand to your face and screaming “Carly! How in the world were airlines NOT already doing these things?!” Well, most airlines were, they were just all doing it in their own different ways and some airlines were better at it than others so they wanted to get everyone on the same page.

The Airbus A330 is among the safest aircraft in the world. Here and American Airlines A330 is coming in for a landing at DFW.

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One of the safest aircraft to date is this MD80. Here one is pictured landing at DFW.

Safety Assurance: What Airlines weren’t doing

The FAA is trying to get airlines to really dig for those hazards that haven’t raised any alarms yet.

Think about it this way: auto mechanics offer a service to do a preventative maintenance check on cars as a way to catch and fix something BEFORE it breaks, and, while you’ve probably NEVER had that done on your car, let’s pretend you have and lets say you do it every now and then. Maybe you’ve even gotten lucky and caught and fixed something saving you a bunch of money in the long run. Yay! The downside is that it costs some money and you have to go out of your way to take it to a shop. That’s probably enough just justify why you wouldn’t do it every day (not to mention the mechanics would probably look at you like you were crazy if you were there EVERY day). At the same time, while taking your car to the shop every day would better prevent something breaking, it wouldn’t ensure that the mechanic didn’t miss something. You’d have to take it to MULTIPLE shops to be looked at by MULTIPLE mechanics to make sure that no mechanic missed anything (and even then, you still couldn’t be 100% sure). This is how we can think about Safety Assurance. These programs are constant preventative maintenance. The FAA wants airlines to (metaphorically) take their operations to several different shops every single day to ensure they are as safe as they possibly can be.

The Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) (AC 120-66B)

ASAP is a confidential, voluntary, non-punitive program where employees (usually just the safety-sensitive like pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and dispatchers) can submit their safety concerns to be considered by a contractually bound group, comprised of employees from that group, management, union, and safety representatives, that discusses how to ensure that safety issue doesn’t affect other employees. Basically, it’s a place where employees can safely tell on themselves after they mess up, get to keep their job and get help to correct their error. In return, the company gets the heads up on an issue so they can work to ensure others don’t have that same problem. It’s a win-win. Without the program, certificated individuals would likely choose not to disclose their safety-related short comings and the airline would never know until it resulted in an accident.

The Flight Operational Quality Assurance program (FOQA) (AC 120-82

FOQA is also a confidential, voluntary, non-punitive program and uses data provided by the plane (think like black box stuff) to identify when the airplane operates outside of normal parameters. For most airlines, this is manifested in the form of a system that communicates regularly with the airplanes. So like, if an airplane lands a little hard, this might trigger an alert to the FOQA analysts to investigate why they landed a little hard. Depending on the data program they use, analysts can set these alerts to go off for whatever they want to see, so if they’re interested in seeing how often we Overspeed the flaps at a specific airport or at a specific altitude, they can ask the airplane to tell them that. This program is set up solely for pilots and is really cool because of the role that the pilot gets to take. The pilot union elects what is called a gatekeeper who is the only person who is privy to identifying info (names, dates, tail numbers, etc) from flagged flights. They would speak with the crews, investigate more about the incident, and then share the de-identified data and findings with management and the FAA to ensure that others are saved from making the same errors.

An aircraft maintenance technician working to maintain the safety of the aircraft.

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An awesome window shot of the winglet on a TK A340. This aircraft is the safest in the world with never having any safety incidents.

The Line Operation Safety Audit program (LOSA) (AC 120-90

LOSA is also a confidential, voluntary, non-punitive program (you can see a commonality here) that allows observer pilots to ride in the jumpsuit and do just that: observe. These pilots are chosen to be LOSA pilots (meaning not just any pilot can be a LOSA pilot), they are not told by the LOSA program which flights to observe (meaning they literally just show up to the airport, get on, and go), they do not take note of any identifying information, and they ride at the discretion of the flight crew (meaning if a crew doesn’t feel comfortable or want a LOSA observation flight that leg, they can say no and the LOSA observer goes and finds a different flight to observe). LOSA can get a bad rep because some pilots see them as check rides when they are in fact quite the opposite. These pilots are looking for threats and errors in the system, not in the individual pilot. Because LOSA pilots can not observe every flight, they assume that these flights represent the majority and look to see how, as an airline, we can better set up to eliminate threats and errors from even being an option on a flight. LOSA pilots simply record threats and errors during the flight and they are instructed not to give any feedback, positive or negative, to pilots. After the flight, they report their observations, good and bad, (again, without ANY names, trail numbers, flight numbers, etc) to the LOSA program analyst(s) who then use that as a snapshot of what happens in every cockpit for every single flight. What we do well, we praise and what we do bad, we help make better. Most airlines contract companies to come in and run a LOSA for them on a regular basis (think: every other year), so most of the time this is not an ongoing process, however, some airlines do run a continuous LOSA.

In addition to these formal programs, most airlines still have their own forms of just a general comment box, so to speak. Usually these act as a catch-all for people to submit safety concerns that they see and maybe don’t think to qualify as an ASAP or just want their voice to be heard. These are usually very informal and, again, are usually just an airline’s way to say “anything else, submit it here”.

While airlines will never be able to prevent 100% of accidents (not from lack of effort, only because it’s statistically impossible to be 100% at anything), these programs are in place to help them try to make accidents less probable and less fatal. These individuals running these programs work tirelessly to ensure that passengers and employees have the least eventful flight possible and, if something does unfortunately happen, they work to ensure that it never happens again.

Do you feel more safe flying now that you know this?

As always, feel free to comment below with any questions you may have. You can also connect with me and get more content on my Instagram, @JustPlaneCarly.

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