Business Aviation Safety Seminar: Used Properly, Copious Collected Data Enhances Safety

 - May 4, 2013, 1:50 AM

The 58th Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) safety seminar for business aviation was held in Montreal last month under a new name. What has long been known as CASS (corporate aviation safety seminar) is now called BASS (business aviation safety seminar), “to align us better with the business aviation community, which comprises 60 percent of the foundation’s membership,” according to FSF CEO Kevin Hiatt.

The two-day conference focused on training, fatigue management and data sharing as a safety management tool. Among the topics of this year’s conference were safety risk management, fatigue management in long-range operations, the pros and cons of the iPad as an EFB, harvesting the safety data from full-motion flight simulators, the hazards of laser pointers and a hard examination of how business aviation’s accident statistics stack up against those of the airlines.

“[Business aviation] training needs to be revisited since operators have different needs. It’s time we let the needs dictate the training and not the other way around,” Hiatt said. He added that he believes, too, that if the airlines have figured out a way to develop best practices for managing crew fatigue in long-range operations, business aviation must do likewise. The FSF is working with its business advisory committee as well as Cupertino, Calif.-based Alertness Solutions to develop those standards.

Risk management demands a new way of approaching the reams of data being generated from the digital flight data recorders (DFDR) now making their way into business aviation. “We need to move from simply being reactive to being predictive to help mitigate threats to business aviation operations,” Hiatt said. But he also believes future success lies in how effectively the industry collectively shares and analyzes the data gathered by DFDRs and compares it with other flight operations. Strict privacy protocols will need to be developed to make C-FOQA a pragmatic reality, he asserted.

NBAA’s Steve Brown added another important insight: “A publicly acceptable safety record is what defines the public perception of everything else about business aviation, our economic contributions and the definition of business aviation as a vital business tool. We cannot ever stop trying to improve our safety performance.”

Safety as a Value, not a Priority

No one should label safety a priority “because it’s much too easy to change priorities as the world evolves,” said Merlin Preuss, vice president of government and legislative affairs for the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA). “Safety should be a core value for every business aviation operation, not just a priority,” he said. “Safety is good for business. It’s a cliché but it’s true.”

But a safety management system (SMS), the current risk management tool designed to fix all that ails the industry, “must be scaled to the flight department’s size and complexity or the safety benefit won’t justify the cost.” Sounding like an aviation heretic, Preuss actually suggested to the audience that not every flight department needs an SMS. For one thing, “the current crop of SMS is too complicated.” In fact, he prefers not to use the term SMS at all when “safety risk management fits better. I’m staying away from mentioning SMS [these days] because that acronym has become synonymous with inappropriate overhead and regulatory burdens that would fail any cost-benefit analysis.” However, “I don’t know of any Canadian airline that hasn’t had to fundamentally change the way it operates to integrate an SMS.”

“Onerous government regulations” create yet another impediment to business aviation, according to Preuss. In Canada, for example, the government views most business aviation as a commercial operation, most likely because the majority of the Canadian fleet is operated by management companies that regularly switch between private and charter operations. “Canada is rewriting the regulations we operate under right now,” Preuss said, “to bring them more into line with the excellent safety record of business aviation.”

Once an organization becomes serious about risk avoidance, a system need not be onerous to build, nor require a highly regulated guidebook, according to Preuss. He added, “Many operators buy a big SMS solution package because they don’t really understand the basics of SMS.” Realistically, he said, a manager need only “look at the problem, then fix the problem, then make sure it really did get fixed and lastly write it all down.” Put another way, he said, “Look at what’s costing money. Those are my triggers to start looking at the risks. Consider non-compliance issues, for example. Have your pilots had altitude excursions, near collisions on the ground or failed checkrides? All of those cost money. Find out why and then formalize it a bit and you’ll have something concrete. How each operator handles this–with a large pre-formed SMS or a computer spreadsheet–then is up to them.”

A Fresh Datastream

If data gathering, analysis and sharing represent the future for business aviation, Steve Charbonneau’s chairmanship of the corporate flight operational quality assurance (C-FOQA) Centerline program created by Austin-Digital should serve as a guiding light. Charbonneau, a Challenger and Global Express pilot, and his team are developing best practice standards for data gathering from the DFDRs on most new large business jets. The goal is to analyze the data and send it back to pilots for review, hopefully to point out their strengths and weaknesses, enough to reduce the business aviation accident rate. While implementing a flight data-monitoring program such as a C-FOQA sounds like a no-brainer to safety experts, some flight department employees view it all as too “Big Brother-like.”

“There can be apprehension from the pilot group that they are being watched by the ‘boss’ and will be punished or reprimanded for any deviation or excursion,” Charbonneau said. Sometimes crews are apprehensive because they don’t trust management in general or believe they don’t understand a pilot’s role well enough. Charbonneau believes, “Deploying a program can actually motivate a cultural shift toward an environment of trust and understanding.”

Some crews may believe their flight department is fine and doesn’t need C-FOQA data. But this perspective can mean “existing latent errors may go undetected. Even the best operators find that they may not be as good as they think they are. A monitoring program will often expose new risks before they are detected or normalized too.”

Finally there’s the fear of discovery by regulators or someone else of a data-reported problem. Operators who fear discovery most are often the ones who have the most to gain from C-FOQA because it allows them to face the problems head on, Charbonneau said. “If there is an operational problem, they can fix it. If no problem exists, there is newfound confidence and the fear of discovery dissolves. The program is easily implemented and managed and can really give operators the boost they need to develop their organization into a world-class operation,” he concluded.