Global Leaders Fear Toll of Economic Duress on Aviation Safety

 - October 27, 2020, 1:00 PM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes an economic toll on the airline industry, global leaders are wary about how financial stressors could erode safety. When airlines look at organizational changes, they must consider unintended consequences of those decisions, said Mark Searle, global director of safety for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), during the recent Flight Safety Foundation International Air Safety Summit.

Safety leadership is critical through this time but could become vulnerable as organizations look to reduce headcount.  “I would caution against it,” he said.

Aviation has remained the safest form of mass transport, Searle asserted.  “That hasn't come by accident. That has come by a lot of hard work and a lot of learning over the years. If we are not careful, then we forget our heritage,” he said, while acknowledging that businesses must remain sustainable. “It is the hardest job in the world to decide who's going to stay and who's going to go.”

But a strong safety management system (SMS) relies on the ability for capturing and analyzing safety data. That, he said, “really requires a good feeding of the pool,” not just of flight data recorder information, but from personnel.

“What's really critical during this crisis is that we reflect back and say what we've learned and understand how we are resilient in the future for future pandemics,” Searle said. “For me, SMS is really core. Please just be careful when you're looking at shedding headcounts in those areas, [or] you may regret it later on.”

“Some airlines may not survive this crisis and they may come out quite differently,” Tay Tiang Guan, deputy director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), agreed. “We as regulators have to be realistic about where the airlines are going to be. But it’s crucial that airlines maintain core capabilities.”

He said new financial investors of distressed airlines might not have an aviation background and understand that safety must be part of the corporate culture.  They might see easy decisions to remove a safety head or somebody running operations, he said. “The landscape of the future means you may not be the same as now. And the traditional role of safety oversight might not be the same going forward.”

Tay added that, more broadly, the aviation ecosystem needs to be watched closely. With the financial stresses, whole companies important to the supply chain could disappear but whose absence might go unnoticed because airline activity is down. “But when we recover, we might find that we have some missing links in the supply chain or the ecosystem that would impede a smooth recovery,” he noted.

The aviation community needs to collect information and analyze the extent that this may become a problem. “Every other day, you find one or two companies restructuring, or some may just go and disappear. So, we, we really have to watch over the next few months how this evolves,” said Tay.

U.S. FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Ali Bahrami noted that “historically we have had tight oversight of operations that are going through those types of organizational changes, bankruptcies, and mergers.”

In particular with the pandemic, regulators must closely engage with operators, as happens during industrywide discussions with safety groups such as the Commercial Aviation Safety Team.. 

Bahrami has been encouraged by the activity. “It's great to have the right people at the table, including the labor and others, to see what type of information we are getting and what needs to be done,” he said. “I have so much respect for our industry, for our people that are in this. We're going through some major issues, but I see the community coming together and really talking about these things.”