Blog: Success Is Enemy of Aviation Safety

Focusing a lot of energy on past successes does not provide any guarantee of future results.

As the new year rolled in, several headlines pointed to 2017 as the safest year in U.S. commercial aviation history. All told, according to one report, on January 1, 399 days had passed without a single fatal commercial passenger jet accident. Another report, this one focusing on U.S.-registered business jets, noted a 62.5 percent reduction in fatalities in 2017. Great news, right?

As an aviation safety professional, I celebrated these accomplishments for about a millisecond. Perhaps I’m jaded or have become a bit of a “safety contrarian,” but these reports add fuel to the argument that “we’re already safe”—an excuse that some use for no action. The reality is that we will never be 100 percent safe. Day in and out, there is continued evidence that many threats, hazards, and other latent conditions remain prevalent in our system.

Three years ago, Dr. Sydney Dekker was the keynote speaker at the CHC Safety and Quality Summit in Vancouver; his theme was “Success: The Enemy of Safety.” Always brilliant in both content and delivery, Dekker made several statements that changed the way I look at safety and reporting on safety.

According to Dekker, “By turning safety into a goal to achieve statistically, companies worry more about looking good than actually reducing illness and injuries.” He continued, “Positive cultures are the ones that allow the boss to hear the bad news.”

Dekker surmised that often the organizations needing the most help are those that appear to be “successful” and don’t have any apparent safety issues. Staying focused on improving safety requires an organization “to keep the discussion of risk alive, circulate fresh viewpoints, and have the capacity to say no.”

Goal setting, counterintuitively, is often a rearward-looking exercise. Unless you are keenly focused on the entire picture, you might overlook a risk. As an example, in the recent past, for good reason, industry had an obsession with approach stability.

After years of a concerted industry campaign, most airline operators can now boast an impressive unstable approach rate below 5 percent. But what about that 5 percent; do those flights continue or go around? Studies by the Flight Safety Foundation and others suggest that 95 percent of those unstable flights continue to land. Are we really safe?

Today, in just about every segment of aviation, some more than others, we continue to trash airframes and only through improved crashworthiness standards—and sometimes a little luck—don’t kill more people.

Case-in-point, earlier this month—412 days since the last fatal commercial passenger jet accident—there was a serious nighttime runway excursion in Turkey. In this event, a Pegasus Airlines 737-800 carrying 162 passengers departed the left side of the runway and was left dangling off a cliff pointed at the sea below. Sure, there were zero fatalities, but what remained was a substantially damaged aircraft and an untapped horrific outcome.

Overall, credit has to be given to an industry that has collectively made aviation extremely safe. However, there are no “silver bullets” and none of this happened overnight. Improvements in aviation safety have involved all stakeholders. Thousands of dedicated professionals have worked for decades to build better defenses to decrease the vulnerabilities associated with air travel. Borrowing from James Reason’s "lining up the holes" accident causation model, today’s Swiss cheese is much more resilient with thicker slices and smaller holes, but there are still holes.

Looking forward to the rest of this year, there is one looming question: Will this record of zero fatal accidents continue? Unfortunately, science and statistics can be unforgiving. Aviation is inherently dangerous—there’s a fine line between routine and catastrophic.

Statistically, there is the phenomenon called “regression to mean,” where if one variable is an extreme measurement—for example, a year with very few fatalities—the next measurement will return closer to the average. Focusing a lot of energy on past successes does not provide any guarantee of future results. There’s still much work to be done.

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Kipp Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for BJT sister publication Aviation International News.