In what it called a major step toward reaching its “Safer Skies” goal of cutting the commercial aviation accident rate by 80 percent by 2007, the FAA has issued a final rule that protects the data collected under flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) programs from FAA enforcement actions, except in criminal or deliberate cases.
While FOQA programs currently are conducted by airlines, the FAA and other safety advocates have long held that eventually they could be expanded to larger aircraft in the GA fleet. Ten airlines currently have FOQA programs, one is pending FAA approval and five other carriers plan to initiate programs in the future. Approximately 1,525 aircraft, which span 13 aircraft types, are already collecting FOQA data.
An FAA rule issued on June 25 protects voluntarily provided information from disclosure to encourage data-sharing programs such as FOQA. The rule responds to a mandate from Congress to protect information that aids in improving safety and security. It also responds to recommendations made by the 1997 National Civil Aviation Review Commission (NCARC) chaired by now-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who then was employed by Lockheed Martin.
FOQA helps prevent accidents by identifying the root causes of potential safety problems. It uses state-of-the-art flight data recorder technology to collect and analyze data on routine flights. The information and insights provided by these programs can enhance line operational safety, training effectiveness, operational procedures, maintenance and engineering procedures, ATC procedures and airport surface safety.
Participation in FOQA is voluntary and not all programs are FAA approved. However, the enforcement protection applies only to airlines with an FAA-approved program. Under FOQA, the FAA approves the airline’s program for routine collection and analysis of digital flight data.
An airline establishes procedures for taking corrective action when problems are identified, as well as for informing the FAA. Most important, the agency said, the data allow airlines and the FAA to identify accident precursors and apply interventions to break the chain of events that lead to accidents.
According to the FAA, FOQA programs have already yielded important safety advances that benefit all users, including business aviation. Since 1995, an FAA-sponsored FOQA demonstration study has produced data that has been used to improve the safety of approaches to more than a dozen airports worldwide.