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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Safety Column: FAA Safety Analysis

By Frances Fiorino

FAA is rewriting the book on accident prevention, and in the new year the aviation community will learn more about growth of the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing System (ASIAS).

ASIAS (ah-sigh-us), launched in 2007, represents FAA's transition from traditional “forensic” analysis process to the “predictive” or “prognostic” approach that aims to quash accidents from occurring. In the still-valid forensic method, a crash occurs. Investigators then determine the cause and issue safety recommendations. Regulators issue rules aimed at preventing a recurrence.

The predictive method sounds more like a plot for sci-fi novel ASIAS visits the past to change the future. FAA collects terabytes of data from wide range of government and industry sources. These include accident/incident databases and information from voluntary safety reporting programs, such as Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) and Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), in use by the airlines. ASIAS is expanding rapidly. In mid-2010, the FAA had 71.2 million FOQA and 71,000 ASAP reports in the system. By Dec. 1, 2011, ASIAS had collected 8.1 million FOQA operations and 106,000 ASAP reports.

Data are de-identfied, and teams of subject matter experts and system users analyze the information to identify hazards and the precursors of accidents. They then develop and implement measures to prevent accidents/incidences from ever occurring. Ultimately, plans are to have ASIAS identify previously unknown risks. FAA emphasizes the system may be used only for safety analysis, never for punitive actions against individuals.

Between now and Fiscal 2013, FAA plans to increase the number of databases to 64 from the current 46 and welcome other aviation community members to the fold, including more regional air carriers as well as participants from the domestic corporate general aviation, helicopter and military sectors and manufacturers.

The connected databases are then integrated into the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) process. CAST, formed in 1998, is a joint industry/government team that coordinates with major industry groups such as ICAO to study past accident/incidents and identify precursors and safety enhancements. CAST, using the historic method, reduced the fatality risk for U.S. commercial aviation by 83 percent in the 1998-2008 period. In the next decade, CAST plans to transition to the prognostic safety analysis, and by 2025, aims to lower the the fatality risk in U.S. transport operations by 50 percent. It will also step up its work to reduce international fatality risk.

ASIAS aggregates and analyzes the data to identify safety risks. CAST teams of experts study the risks, and develop and implement safety measures to prevent recurrence. Then it's back to ASIAS to monitor the effectiveness of those mitigations.

A demonstration of ASIAS's capability occurred in the wake of the Aug. 27, 2006, crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Lexington (Ky.) Blue Grass Airport. The accident killed 49 of 50 people onboard when the crew attempted takeoff from the wrong runway. The flight was cleared to depart Runway 22, but the crew taxied onto Runway 26 in the early morning darkness. The aircraft ran off the end of the runway during takeoff roll.

ASIAS reviewed numerous databases for reports involving aircraft that had departed or taxied into position on the wrong runway in the 1981-2006 period.

Findings of ASIAS “Wrong Runway Report” indicated that while “wrong runway events” happened at many U.S. airports, they most frequently occur at four: Cleveland Hopkins, Houston Hobby, Salt Lake City and Miami International.

ASIAS identified contributing factors/common elements: Each airport had multiple runway thresholds in close proximity, a complex airport design, use of a runway as a taxiway, a runway using intersection departures and a short distance between airport terminal and runway. The system then identified areas where events had not yet occurred and determined several ways in which crew confusion and “wrong runway” accidents/incidents could be avoided.

These included the incorporation in Part 121 operations of electronic flight bags with “own-ship” moving map display. And any pilot who has used own-ship MMD knows its benefits in terms of situational awareness on the airport surface, particularly when operating at an unfamiliar airport.

For more on ASIAS, go to www.asias.faa.gov.

Avionics will keep you posted on ASIAS and other aviation safety developments. Meanwhile, fly safe.

Frances Fiorino, a Washington D.C.-based freelance writer, has more than 20 years’ experience as an aviation journalist with major publications. She holds a private pilot license and covers air safety and simulation/training issues in the transport and general aviation sectors.

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