Gateway to Data Analysis

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In the last article, we discussed the advent and development of the ASAP system for pilots to report operational issues encountered during routine and non-routine operations.  This created a way for operators, and the FAA, to track operational trends that might signify risk in an operation and allowed for ways to mitigate risk and reduce the likelihood of an occurrence that may result in an accident. By having the pilots report issues that were then de-identified and protected, the operators could track these issues for the first time in aviation history, while protecting the people who reported them.

Following the development of ASAP, the FAA implemented FOQA, or Flight Operational Quality Assurance Program, starting in the early 2000’s as provided in Advisory Circular 120-82.  Like ASAP, FOQA provides a computer data driven system by which specific parameters on events can be collected by an operator for the purpose of identifying risk trends and analysis with the goal of working to mitigate, build awareness, and educate; on the occurrence of these events and ways to reduce them.  Each operator then takes this data, de-identifies it to make it anonymous, and then shares it with both the FAA and other air carrier operators with the goal to make all constituents aware of these trends, to provide a means to track and improve these trends within the operator and the industry.  The FAA then uses the aggregated data to improve rule making, change guidance and update the best available information, training materials and requirements, etc.  Unlike ASAP, which includes the perspective of the crew, FOQA is a collection of raw aircraft data. When used in conjunction with ASAP, it provides much greater detail and insight into events that might otherwise not have been fully understood. It also helps to solve ambiguity in a situation as the way it may be remembered or understood by a crew may be different in some ways than what really happened. Of course, some ASAP events also go unreported, while FOQA is always recorded.

Essentially, FOQA reads input from aircraft sensors and records them, in a set format, into a downloadable computer memory system for later retrieval by the operator. It is also common for this data to be transmitted to the operator at intervals through the ACARS system to help the operator track the “health” of the airplane in real time. This ability to transmit aircraft data in real time played a large role in helping to determine the cause and sequence of events in major air disasters such as Air France 447, as investigators were able to put together a chronological sequence of events as the ACARS data transmitted back to the operator.

To participate in FOQA data collection, the operator must go through a process development and approval with the FAA, as well as collection development and validation phases to ensure accuracy of the data being collected. They must also set what parameters they are watching, how they will measure them, how often they will be collected, etc.

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Once the operator knows what they are going to collect and how they are going to collect it, they have to actually collect data in a controlled environment so that they can then compare the data to what actually happened and “calibrate” the data collection until it is accurately reflecting the specific aircraft state they are monitoring.  A good example of this might be the criteria for unstable approaches. First, the parameters are developed that would allow an unstable approach to be detected. Second, those parameters would be tested to ensure that they accurately reflect the various aspects of a stabilized or un-stabilized approach. An example of this might be indicated airspeed at 500’ HAT.  Once it is verified that the data being collected is accurate to reality, data collection begins. It should also be noted that there is an allowance for operational consideration built into the parameters. Going back to the airspeed example, the FOQA may only record an “exceedance” of allowable approach speed if the speed value is outside the accepted “stabilized approach” criteria for that operator. If the operator’s stabilized approach criteria allows for +10/-5 KIAS of target airspeed, then the FOQA would be set-up to flag data that fall outside of that allowable range. It should also be noted that FOQA is most effective when data is collected in aggregate over hundreds or thousands of operations, since this will better highlight trends and operational considerations rather than focusing on each specific flight (although it does this too).

Once the collection of data begins, it can be disseminated among the various stakeholders to improve processes throughout the company.  For instance, FOQA may highlight a frequent exceedance of a maintenance critical parameter (such as engine EGT on start, or lack of sufficient warm-up on an APU), which informs maintenance of an issue. This information can then be shared with Flight Operations, who can then work with maintenance, training and line pilot representatives to determine what the root cause is and then update training, guidance, policy and maintenance procedures, as a result. This not only improves operational safety through a constant and ongoing evaluation process, but can often save the operation a significant amount of money by preventing unnecessary maintenance costs and downtime.  It should also be noted that the costs saved in avoiding accidents can’t be quantified easily, but is the most significant area of savings of all. Once any changes are made, the data can be monitored to determine if the changes were effective or whether there is further improvement needed. Impacted are various stakeholders, include management, training departments, safety departments, maintenance departments, flight ops, dispatch, meteorology and anybody else who may benefit from the collection of data to gather more information or improve internal processes and procedures.

In an aviation accident, an important concept to understand is that the occurrence of sudden and unpredictable accidents is virtually nil and the clear majority of mishaps are caused by a sequence of events leading to an accident; each one of which could have been prevented and the accident avoided.  Therefore, despite the inevitability of error, not every mistake leads to an accident. It is also why there are usually multiple protections in place to try to make sure a mistake is an isolated event and not part of a bigger sequence. The foundation of aviation safety is to put multiple layers of protection in place that attempt to prevent this sequence of events from forming.  FOQA plays an integral part in this concept of safety because basic probability indicates that the more an event occurs, the more likely it is to result in a mishap. By using FOQA data to identify trends, measures can be implemented to mitigate the risk of those trends. Unstable approaches are a good example.  If five out of every hundred approaches are unstable, then the risk of a mishap or runway excursion is much higher than if one out of every thousand are unstable.

The big concern for most pilots with FOQA is that “big brother” is watching them and that the FAA can use this data against them at any time and for any reason.  However, this is an unfounded fear due to the collection process. Yes, the data are collected, but it is provided to the FAA in aggregated form, which provides literally millions of data points for the FAA industry-wide.  Remember that the goal of FOQA is not to focus on one data point, but to provide overall trend information with the goal of improving overall safety.

On the operator’s end, the data collected is the sole property of the operator and is very carefully controlled, collected, maintained and secured by the operator as part of the FOQA approval process. It also has very protected and restricted access by only authorized users. Unions, if applicable, also must sign-off on the use and protection of this data with the intent of protecting individuals from unwarranted investigation or prosecution. If the data ARE provided to the FAA, they are either anonymous, or provided in an identifying manner with the understanding that the data still belongs to the operator.

The reason FOQA is such a critical component in aviation safety, in addition to the benefits listed above, is that it forms one of the cornerstone components of the next phase of safety innovations, which is a Safety Management System or SMS. This will allow, for the first time, preventative safety development that seeks to reduce risks before they happen, rather than waiting for trends, that could result in mishaps, to develop first.

The next few articles will discuss the remaining components of the modern safety system and how they relate to the development and phase in of SMS as a standard way for air carriers to operate. This will mirror the current push in the industry, and the FAA’s mandate to implement SMS industry wide over the next couple of years.


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