AIN Blog: Torqued: Voluntary versus Mandatory Safety Reporting Systems

 - December 1, 2013, 12:10 AM

I got to thinking about voluntary versus mandatory safety reporting programs after reading an article in a British newspaper about two UK pilots who allegedly fell asleep in the cockpit of an Airbus A330 shortly after takeoff. What caught my attention was the statement from the UK Civil Aviation Authority that enforcement action against the pilots is unlikely. A CAA spokesman is quoted as saying: “In potentially critical safety situations such as this, we aim to learn from what happened and ensure it will not happen again.” Contrast that with the treatment two Northwest pilots received from the FAA in 2009 when they overshot their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles (either because they were asleep or distracted). The FAA slapped both crewmembers with emergency revocation of their pilot certificates.

The nations’ differing enforcement philosophies are particularly evident in their approaches to safety reporting programs. Interestingly, the UK has a mandatory reporting program and the U.S. a voluntary one. So which approach is more likely to lead to an improvement in air safety?

Safety reporting systems have become more prevalent throughout the world as civil aviation authorities, including the FAA, acknowledge the importance of collecting safety information provided by front-line aviation workers, airmen such as pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers, and non-airmen such as flight attendants, ramp workers and others working in the proverbial trenches of aviation. Although the accident rate in the U.S. is very low–NTSB statistics for 2012 show the total (fatal and nonfatal) accident rate per 100,000 flight hours for U.S. aviation to be 0.155 for scheduled Part 121 airlines, 1.251 for Part 135 commuters, 1.27 for Part 135 on-demand and 6.78 for GA–reducing the rate even further, especially in the face of increasing flights, remains a challenge. Many safety advocates (myself included) believe that the key to driving down the accident (and incident) rate is to get critical safety information from those who work in the system day in and day out. Data from those individuals has proved to be an early-warning system of problems that could lead to an incident or an accident.

Fear of Repercussions

In the U.S., voluntary safety programs have developed with the intent of encouraging airmen to provide safety-critical information. However, they have been met–at least at their inception–with staunch opposition and skepticism from many inside and outside the government who view these programs as little more than get-out-of-jail-free cards. Some of that mentality is evident in how those programs developed. Most of you are aware of the aviation safety reporting system (ASRS, or “NASA immunity” as it’s commonly called because NASA administers the program). Under the ASRS, voluntarily reporting an inadvertent violation of the federal aviation regulations will likely spare you an enforcement penalty if the FAA finds out (independently of the report since they are anonymous and confidential) and decides to prosecute.

However, taking advantage of NASA immunity in an FAA enforcement case is not punishment-free: while you will not serve a suspension or pay a fine, there will still be a finding of violation on your record, which can jack up insurance rates and hurt your chances of getting a job. The program also provides no protection against company discipline. (Notwithstanding these problems, I remain a strong supporter of the ASRS program because it does obtain important data from diverse operators, including GA, and it does spot trends that are important to aviation safety. So keep those forms handy and keep filing!)

A program that does seek to provide protection from both FAA and company discipline is the aviation safety action program, or ASAP. This program is available only to airline and repair station employees who work at a facility where an ASAP has been established. Setting up such a program requires agreement among the employer, the union or other employee group and the FAA. Under these programs, voluntarily reporting most inadvertent violations of the federal aviation regulations will protect you from FAA enforcement and company discipline.

But ASAP is not available to all airmen. It’s not available to general aviation at all and available (thanks to the efforts of the Air Charter Safety Foundation) to only a limited number of Part 135/Part 91K airmen. The FAA runs a program similar to ASAP for its air traffic controllers.

Now compare the U.S. voluntary approach to the UK’s mandatory program, which applies to anyone who flies turbine-powered aircraft (which would include GA). Full details of the program are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the UK system mandates reporting by airmen covered by the program but basically promises no enforcement action, except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. My experience with the UK system is that enforcement actions are few and far between. Their philosophy, as explained to me, is to punish only for a failure to report, not the occurrence itself if it’s reported. (I’m sure there have been exceptions over the years, but in general this has been the UK approach to safety since the 1970s.) The UK also specifically asks aviation entities not to discipline employees for reported occurrences, and to protect employees leery of discipline it allows for confidential reporting.

I think the essence of the UK program is best captured by the statement of its CAA chief executive in guidance implementing the mandatory occurrence-reporting system: “The CAA espouses a ‘Just Culture’ in the interests of the ongoing development of flight safety. This means the CAA supports the development, within all areas of the aviation community, of a culture in which individuals are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them that are commensurate with their experience and training but which result in a reportable event; but where gross negligence, willful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated.

I think enforcement has its place in punishing intentional and reckless conduct.  For all other situations, we might consider the British approach.