FOQA: Training Tool, And More

By James W. Ramsey | December 1, 2005
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Flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) started in Europe, but has take root in North America and Asia, enhancing safety and reducing costs for numerous airlines. The practice, moreover, is endorsed not only by company management, but also by pilot unions and regulatory agencies.

New technologies are making these programs even better through improved data analysis and transmission. And some carriers are finding it more efficient to outsource their flight data analysis (FDA) in "managed contract" arrangements.

To find out how FOQA is working and where it is headed, Avionics Magazine interviewed two major carriers with somewhat different approaches–United Airlines and Air Canada–as well as the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), FAA and contractors, such as Teledyne Controls.

These programs have become an important measuring tool, providing operators with a recorded journal of what transpired on a particular flight. FOQA enables airlines to analyze the data for any events or trends that might signal an exceedence of normal, or standard, operating procedures. When changes or corrections are made, FOQA data then provides a review of these procedures to see if the improvements are working.

"It gives us a real-time auditing tool of what’s going on in the real operation," says Jeff Bayless, United’s director of system safety and flight security. "The Training Center can see how we react in the simulator, but we can now also see how that training is transferring out to the line in actual line operations," he says.

Air Traffic Control

The airline relies heavily on FOQA in pilot training, he adds. For United pilots undergoing annual training at the carrier’s Denver Center, the FOQA department issues bulletins, listing "hot items" or alerts that can include certain airports where a number of FOQA exceedances have been found.

Bayless cites unstabilized approaches that the program has recorded at certain airports United serves. The airline took recorded data down to Mexico City, showing air traffic controllers that a certain approach they were using was causing a problem.

"The approach [vector] was at about a 100-degree angle at the point where you turn in to go final, and they were typically turning you in early before that intersection, which would put you high on the approach," he relates. "We were seeing a lot of fast approaches going into Mexico City, and [its] being a high-altitude airport compounded the problem." Corrections have since been made to that approach.

FOQA also has helped diagnose potential maintenance problems. One involved pilot reports indicating possible flap overspeed, where maximum speed for deploying flaps is exceeded. "Either because of turbulence or something related on the approach, the pilots [reported they had] deployed flaps with the airspeed too high," Bayless says. "We used the FOQA data to go back and say, `No, your speed was only 1 knot over or none.’ This requires less of an inspection than if it were 10 or 15 knots over." The latter would have needed a Phase II inspection, requiring complete disassembly of the wing and putting the airplane out of service.

"With FOQA, we were able to verify the actual speed when it occurred to determine what kind of maintenance action was really required," says Theresa Behrens, United’s system safety and FOQA manager. "Within a short period of time, you [can] do the correct check for the issues that arose."

New at Air Canada

While United pioneered FOQA among U.S. airlines in 1995, Air Canada is just launching its program. "We wanted something that was going to tell us more than just cookie cutter facts–we wanted to know what was happening in our operation," says Randy Perrett, the Canadian carrier’s flight data analysis (FDA) manager. "We wanted to be able to use the information to enhance and improve our operations." The airline will use its FDA program to study specific maintenance issues or challenges on a given airplane or fleet, to better understand why actual performance may differ from what was expected.

"We are looking down the road at integrating the tool, where we can, with our maintenance operation and certainly with our standards and training," Perrett says. "With the analysis and understanding of the line operation–and the ability to demonstrate the way airplanes are being flown–perhaps there is an opportunity to reduce the required intervals between simulator sessions and, in the future, how often pilots would require line checks." But the program is first and foremost a safety program, he stresses.

The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and FAA are firmly behind FOQA. "We not only support them 100 percent and encourage installation of these programs, we’d love to have them at every one of our carriers," says Don McClure, ALPA air safety coordinator. Currently 13 U.S. carriers have FAA-approved FOQA programs and eight of these carriers’ pilots are represented by ALPA.

FAA approval provides pilots with regulatory control over release of information that could be used for punitive reasons. Flight crews on a particular flight are "de-identified," ensuring their privacy. The pilots’ unions, including the Air Canada Pilots Association, are vigilant in this protection. "But it’s not just us," McClure says. "The FAA and the companies are equally as vigilant, because they recognize the potential of the program and recognize the dangers of not treating the data properly."

Problem Corrected

ALPA, which is a strong proponent of having an ILS for all runways that the carriers serve, notes an example of how FOQA data helped correct a problem with unstabilized approaches at a Charlotte, N.C., runway. A carrier operating into that airport cataloged unstable approaches on that runway which at the time had only a back course localizer, providing no vertical guidance. "The runway had a propensity for unstabilized approaches, so the FAA moved a Category I ILS over from another runway," McClure notes. "During the first six months after the commissioning of the full ILS, there was an 84 percent reduction of unstabilized approaches to that runway," he says.

McClure also cites FOQA’s ability to take real-time objective data and identify safety issues. "It has an almost unlimited capability to identify [safety issues] that are both airline-specific or [applicable to the] industry in general and help you identify the problems and fix them."

FAA concurs. The program can objectively identify unsafe events which, if they were to continue to occur uncorrected, could lead to an accident or incident, according to Tom Longridge, advanced qualification programs manager for the agency. And if data is shared among participating operators and with FAA, national negative (safety) trends can be identified, for which collaborative corrective action can be taken, he says.

Unlike United, which handles its FOQA program in-house, Air Canada is banking on a relatively new and different approach. The carrier is outsourcing flight data analysis to Teledyne Controls in a managed contract arrangement. While older FOQA programs had fairly basic recording devices that could capture a limited number of parameters, "a managed service, such as we have, allows us to stay right on top of the current software and capability," Perrett maintains.

"We probably monitor two to three times the amount of parameters of almost any other program I’m aware of," he says. (Teledyne says 186 operational events are monitored on each flight). "It gives us the ability to monitor one engine vs. another on a number of flights or a particular airplane’s performance on certain sectors vs. another. We get a very good sense of what our fuel requirements are on a day-to-day basis on city pair segments, and we can certainly monitor for things like out-of-trim conditions," he says

Analysis Software

Under the contract Teledyne uses its own software to analyze the data and can take advantage of its expertise in writing code. "This allows the airline management staff to focus on the operational issues we try to address," Perrett says. "We’re not bothered with software and IT [information technology] updates and managing servers and those kinds of things that a flight department is not normally staffed and equipped to handle. It allows everyone to stay within their core competencies, and we work on what we understand best."

Teledyne began discussions with Air Canada on providing a FOQA service in mid-2003, and then went on contract and started the program with them in May 2004. The program has gone through a build-up phase, and in 2005 event steps were refined. At the end of October, the airline completed a formal program trial, and pending necessary ratification by the pilot’s union and management (targeted for Dec. 1), will be ready to apply it operationally.

During the trial the airline was able to use data it acquired "in a number of areas, including studying specific maintenance issues or challenges on a given airplane or fleet," says Perrett.

Initially, the FDA program will apply to the airline’s 109-aircraft Airbus narrowbody (A319/320/321) fleet. But eventually it will be expanded to the 20-aircraft Airbus widebody fleet and new aircraft the carrier may procure.

Air Canada extracts the flight data information from PCMCIA cards that are removed from the aircraft on a nightly basis at its Toronto facility. The unit that retrieves the information from the cards sends the data by Internet to the servers at Teledyne’s analysis facility in Ottawa for processing. Teledyne dedicates five full-time and two part-time analysts to its Air Canada program. The information is then sent to the airline’s flight safety department in Toronto. Teledyne also employs a retired A320 captain who briefs the airline on FOQA findings.

Teledyne uses software called AirFASE to view and analyze the data, It can present this information in graphical form or as a visualization, showing, for example, the aircraft and runway during an approach. (FASE stands for Flight Analysis and Safety Explorer, and Air for Airbus, which co-developed the software.)

United’s Program

United, whose FOQA program is already well established, takes a different view of outsourcing. "We have a pretty robust program in cooperation with ALPA," Bayless says. "Nobody knows our operation better than we do internally. We have enough expertise in the company to do our own analysis–it’s one thing to capture the data, but it’s another thing to explain why. So we just haven’t seen the benefit of going outside and hiring [FDA]."

United has two full-time and three part-time company employees working on FOQA. There are also four part-time standards captains at the Denver training center, reviewing data from their respective fleets and helping the FOQA team to determine what to measure or focus on. And six ALPA volunteers help with analysis at United’s Chicago center. "We give them `trip drops’ [pay for their scheduled flights], allowing them to stay home and come and look at and analyze the data here," Bayless says.

Austin Digital Inc. (of Austin, Texas) provides the event measurement system software that United uses to analyze the data, and the airline contracts with its own Information Services Department to provide the server. ADI also provides the hardware to download the data at 14 remote stations on the airline’s system–13 in the United States and one in Europe.

A quick access recorder on the aircraft records the data on either a PCMCIA card or on an optical disk (like a DVD), and periodically, depending on the aircraft’s maintenance cycle, technicians pull the cards off the aircraft. They put the units in the remote data acquisition machines, which send the information to the FOQA center, where the raw data is processed through the ADI system and then stored in United’s server, Bayless explains.

Can cost savings be used to justify a FOQA program such as United’s? "We’ve been able to save the program through all the bankruptcy cuts we’ve gone through because of, not only the cost savings, but of course the value in added safety," says Bayless. (United is expected to emerge from Chapter 11 in early 2006.)

Safety and cost savings combine in a program that can also help predict a possible failure before it occurs. For example, United uses FOQA daily to monitor engine stator vanes on its 52-aircraft Boeing 777 fleet. "The system notifies us when certain criteria that have been built into the program–temperatures or other parameters–are exceeded," Behrens says. "It tells us that these stator vanes need to be visually checked for excessive wear."

"Our technicians know they need to go out and check them, and on two occasions they have actually removed the engine and replaced the stator vanes, based on the data FOQA found," she says. "The vanes’ condition is a precursor to a possible engine shutdown in flight. So, it possibly saved an engine shutdown."


Instead of relying on technicians to remove PC cards from the aircraft, United plans to employ wireless technology to transmit FOQA data from the aircraft to the server. The carrier will install IEEE 802.11 wireless LANs to transmit data at several airports they serve, beginning next spring. Message transfer will be triggered when the aircraft baggage door is opened at the gate.

United is working with Honeywell on the system that combines the recording and transmission of data. The airline plans to inaugurate the system on its Boeing 757 fleet and then retrofit it to the remaining aircraft. "Eventually, the whole fleet will download via the wireless network," which will take about two years to install, says Behrens. Aircraft with older recording devices will be retrofitted, and new aircraft will be delivered with new units, she adds.

Air Canada also is exploring the idea of wireless data transfers at the gate. It is looking for solutions that would allow it to download FDA data but also upload data to aircraft systems, such as the electronic flight bag, flight management system or cabin entertainment system.

Teledyne is proposing to the carrier that it move the information via its WGL (wireless gate link), which uses cell phone technology to dial a local phone number and then broadcast the data to a base station and onto the network, says Steve Roberts, director of Teledyne Controls’ FOQA Services in Canada.

Weather Wise

Another FOQA development allows carriers to correlate a recorded FOQA event with the weather at that time. "We now can marry up the flights with the weather, so we can actually tell you what the weather was when the flight landed," United’s Bayless says. "That way we can separate instrument approaches vs. visual approaches and see where we have any issues." The METAR (meteorological aeronautical radio code) data is provided by software supplier ADI.

Teledyne is implementing a similar METAR program for Air Canada. The FOQA analyst "can actually send queries to a data server and get METAR info for a particular airfield at a particular time," Roberts says. "Meteorological information is important if you are looking at FOQA events. We’re trying to integrate the external environment with the internal [situation]."

Teledyne claims more than 60 percent of the worldwide FDA software market. It has 60 customers worldwide for AirFASE, which it produces and installs in a partnership with Airbus, and another 20 buyers for a legacy product, GRAF (Ground Replay and Analysis Facility).

In its newer FDA services business for carriers, Teledyne covers 200 aircraft. Air Canada is its largest customer, followed by Ryanair of Dublin. Air Seychelles and PrivatAIR, a Swiss carrier, also use the service.

Teledyne’s experience in aircraft recording and monitoring, as well as analysis, was probably a key factor in Air Canada’s decision to outsource its FDA. "We are involved in all aspects of the field–from the boxes that collect the data and produce the data stream to the QAR [quick access recorder] that records it–and then on the ground we have the software analysis tools," says Dennis Schmitz, Teledyne Controls’ senior director of marketing and business development.

While most airlines buy software and run their FOQA program internally, Roberts says he has seen increased interest in the past two years in managed contracts. "There are two ends to this market. One is large, low cost carriers that want to reduce costs. Then there are smaller carrriers that may want to piggyback on larger programs. And regionals [airlines] are looking at it, as well."

Other FOQA Products

Teledyne Controls isn’t alone in offering products supporting flight operations quality assurance (FOQA). Miami-based Avionica Inc. claims to be the first company to introduce a miniature quick access recorder (QAR)–in 1999–and it also offers a wireless data transfer system, called secureLINK.

The solid state memory in its current MiniQAR MkII can collect and store up to 1 Gbyte of flight data, or about 3,000 hours. It is deemed miniature, weighing just 5.5 ounces (156 grams) and measuring 2.2 by 2.6 by 1.8 inches (5.6 by 6.6 by 4.6 cm).

Avionica’s secureLINK wireless router enables the wireless transfer of flight data while the aircraft is at the gate. It establishes an authenticated and encrypted log-on automatically, as the aircraft enters the system’s wireless network. There is no need for human intrervention.

UK-based Aerobytes Ltd. also provides FOQA software and also provides the tools to manage and track corrective action. Most of Aerobytes’ customers use the software for their in-house programs, although a few smaller operators use its "remote" service, according to Aerobytes’ sales and marketing manager, Kevin Martin. Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo in the United States are Aerobytes customers, using the software for their Boeing 747 freighters.

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