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Understanding what goes well to deliver flight safety

by Joji Waites Head of Flight Safety, BALPA

Over the decades, the aviation industry has largely been successful in learning from accidents, particularly when operational knowledge was less mature, and aircraft were less reliable. Thorough investigations and ingenuity enabled technological and operational advances such that air travel is widely recognised as the ‘safest’ form of transport.

Now that aircraft airworthiness is much better understood and aircraft reliability is generally very high, accident investigations tend to cite ‘human error’ as the predominant cause. Putting to one side an opinion that human error is more a symptom of underlying systemic issues rather than a cause in itself, it is worth exploring more closely the context around ‘human error’.

Aircraft accidents, particularly those involving fatalities, are thankfully now very rare. IATA’s latest annual review states that over the five-year period 2018-2022, there was one accident for every 0.81 million flights flown.

This means that the vast majority of the 34.4 million flights flown during this period did not result in an accident outcome.

It follows, therefore, that continuing to focus on the human aspects of why a very small proportion of flights went wrong is likely to bring diminishing returns. Surely it would be more productive to understand how and why the millions of flights go well (whilst accepting that they are not completely free of risk).

To illustrate this more explicitly, a NASA study[1] estimated that for every time a pilot makes an error that contributes to an accident, other pilots intervene approximately 157,000 times to keep flights safe. Given that this statistic only relates to aircraft malfunctions, the actual successful intervention rate is likely to be far higher.

Pilots, like other well trained, experienced, and knowledgeable aviation professionals, are able to use their expertise, day-to-day, to adapt and respond to a vast array of operational challenges that are thrown at them to ensure safe outcomes. In the flight deck, this ability is crucially cemented by there being a team of at least two such individuals to logically problem-solve and make the right decisions for safety.

With this in mind, the thought of partially removing pilots from the safety system, as suggested by a range of ‘Reduced Crew Operations’ (RCO) concepts under investigation, would seem like a backwards step that could adversely impact on flight safety.

A potential lack of understanding and underestimation of the role of a pilot is a serious concern as we move towards greater automation and in light of commercial pressure for RCO.

That’s why BALPA is delighted to be involved in the Flight Safety Foundation Learning from All Operations (FSF LAO) initiative and why it is joining colleagues around the world in the Safety Starts with 2 campaign.

We will be asking our members to share stories of how they have worked as a team to deal with aircraft technical issues, adverse weather, airspace issues and other operational challenges to deliver safe flights.

BALPA would like the aviation industry and public to recognise the vital role of pilots in the complex aviation system and to understand that for pilots the objective is always to make every flight a safe flight.

[1] “Exploring Methods to Collect and Analyze Data on Human Contributions to Aviation Safety”, Jon Holbrook, NASA