With commercial airline accident rates being the lowest ever in 2015, the aviation industry could be forgiven for allowing itself a huge pat on the back. Yet there is a paradox. A lack of accidents can often negatively influence our safety thinking by instilling an overinflated sense of security.
The aviation industry is currently evolving much more quickly than the regulatory world.
Behind the glamour, aviation is a tremendously competitive business continuously seeking ways to lower costs. Perfectly acceptable as long as aviation doesn’t draw the wrong conclusions from the latest safety figures. Many will be aware of the headline statistic but much fewer will be aware there still remains many incidents that for one reason or another do not make it into the public domain by becoming an accident.
Aviation has learnt many lessons from accidents and incidents over the past 100 years or so. The result of which being a firm understanding of the physics, dynamics and risks associated with flying. Add to the mix the constant improvement in technology and training, the high level of regulatory oversight and one has an incredibly safe form of transport. With air travel expected to increase significantly in the next decade, keeping aviation safe will become even more challenging.
Therefore regulators the world over are now placing more emphasis on the safety performance of an organisation rather than simply checking for procedural compliance with regulations. The difficulty though is ensuring the performance data collected is accurate and does indeed present a true view of the organisation being audited. This obviously requires resources at a time when regulatory budgets are being reduced. The current fixation on cost cutting (under the guise of efficiency) is akin to the regulator having all its teeth removed and so is left with no bite. Within Europe this problem is exacerbated in that national regulators are still trying to find the right balance in order to address the impact of EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) and EU legislation coming into existence.
The aviation industry is currently evolving much more quickly than the regulatory world. Consequently there is a need to ensure regulations and oversight remain fit for purpose otherwise regulators would continue applying outdated inspection philosophies. In engineering and maintenance terms this could reduce safety levels as airlines are constantly seeking the lowest price contract forcing maintenance organisations to deliver to a set price rather than a set standard.
Airlines will be buoyed by the latest statistics. Yet for Licensed Engineers maintaining aircraft, this will undoubtedly manifest itself as a lack of consistency from airlines in their commitment to actually do what is expected in terms of safety; particularly if there is a cost attached.
The task is to ensure airlines do not lose sight of what is important. Despite all the safety improvements over the past 100 years or so, the smallest mistake can still have catastrophic consequences. Therefore the challenge facing aviation is to continue to improve its safety culture in order to eliminate accidents and reduce incidents. After all safe flying is good for business.