Monday, August 24, 2009

Proactive Safety from Flight Data

In the tragic event of a passenger airplane crash, there is always the search for the flight data recorder, also known as the black box. This device continuously record dozens, sometimes hundreds, of data points about the state of the plane. Analyzing this data is usually key to understanding what went wrong in a crash.

The typical black box retains data for up to a day, recording over the older data. However, some airlines download black-box data between flights, thus maintaining a complete data history for the plane. Doing so opens the possibility of aggregating a huge number of flights’ data to detect problems before they cause a crash.

The industry term for it is Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA). I discovered the topic because I met a pilot from one of the U.S. airlines that has a FOQA program. His job is to train other pilots, and one of his tasks is to bring findings from the FOQA data into the field.

For example, a notoriously difficult airport had an unusual number and variety of problems with landings. Because it was a difficult airport, extra problems were expected. However, analyzed over time, the pattern of problems suggested how the landing procedure could be changed to increase safety—which it was.

More generally, trainers can watch for trends in which crews are getting lax about certain procedures. This allows the trainers to identify where additional training is needed and to assess the effectiveness of that training.

As a frequent airline passenger, it was a pleasant surprise to hear about this proactive use of flight data in the name of safety.

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