Mandatory is not Routine
Oliver Giles (6 minute read)
The aviation industry has made significant strides in continuously improving safety over the years. One of the key ways in which it has achieved this is through the mandatory reporting of incidents and accidents. These reports enable aviation authorities to identify trends, areas for improvement, and implement changes that enhance safety. However, the truth about mandatory and routine aviation safety reporting is that standards and formats vary across the globe, which can have significant implications for safety. These standards are also routed in the technology of the jet age. Consider the impact of a birdstrike on an A320 vs a VTOL air taxi; for the jet there is a known, quantifiable risk of ingestion and loss of thrust (just ask Tom Hanks).
For small VTOL aircraft EASA stipulate as a means of compliance that an emergency landing can be made after a “likely bird impact” without any suggestion of the mass or number of birds, phase of flight or any other variable that should be accounted for. This leads us to the question of how the industry maintains its safety record through this upheaval? One answer perhaps is to leverage the data and knowledge we already have but use technologies such as AI to allow for real-time threat identification, monitoring and mitigation.
An Historical Moment in Aviation
On January 16th 1930, Flying Officer F. Whittle of Regent Street, Coventry submitted his Patent Specification number 347206 entitled “Improvements relating to the Propulsion of Aircraft and other Vehicles”. In the first paragraph he states, “This invention concerns improvements relating to propulsion and whilst at present it is deemed to be particularly adapted to aircraft, it is not necessarily limited to this use and may be adapted for the propulsion of other vehicles.” Every aviation enthusiast knows that this statement represented Genesis; a simple sentence that shaped the the 20th century and shrank the very planet we call home. In the 90 years since we have been continuously improving and refining the model, going faster, higher, father and crucially, consuming less resources as we do so.
But now we find ourselves at another watershed moment. The Frank/Frankie Whittle(s) of today are driving advances in autonomous flight, new electrical and hydrogen propulsion systems, 3D printed structures and a continuous effort to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. These technologies promise to reshape air travel as we know it significantly. If tech magazines of today are to be believed, then we are but a few short years away from ordering an autonomous sky-Uber to whisk us around major cities. According to a report by Frost & Sullivan, the global autonomous air taxi market is projected to reach $1.5 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 59.6%. Additionally, a survey by Deloitte found that 50% of respondents in the United States would consider using an autonomous air taxi service, with 74% of Millennials and Gen Z expressing interest.
Commercial versus General Aviation
Mandatory reporting in aviation refers to the requirement for pilots, air traffic controllers, and other aviation professionals to report certain incidents and accidents to the relevant authorities. These reports provide important information about safety issues that need to be addressed. Routine reporting involves the regular reporting of safety-related data. This may include information about the number of flights operated, the number of passengers carried, and the number of incidents and accidents during a given period. This data is used by aviation authorities to monitor safety trends over time and identify areas for improvement.
One area where there are large variances in global reporting standards is when we look at general aviation. This category spans everything from unpowered sailplanes to complex multi-engine jet aircraft. For example, in the United States, general aviation pilots are not required to report certain incidents that are mandatory for commercial pilots to report, this includes incidents such as the failure of flight controls, minor wildlife strikes, an in-flight fire, and loss of engine power. The reporting requirements for general aviation pilots in other countries may differ even more significantly from those of commercial pilots or not even exist at all.
In addition to the differences in mandatory reporting requirements, there are also differences in the routine reporting of safety data. Commercial airlines are required to report safety data to their national aviation authorities on a regular basis. However, there is no such requirement for general aviation pilots, which means that safety data for this sector is no where near as comprehensive.
The general aviation sector will only continue to grow, with the advent of unmanned autonomous air vehicles, new propulsion technologies such as fuel cell and lithium batteries and new concepts such as air taxis and autonomous delivery drones, it is crucial for both national and international regulators to meet the needs of advances in technology while preserving the safety standards we have become so accustom to.
The Global Picture
The reporting standards and formats for mandatory and routine reporting also vary across the globe. This can have significant implications for safety, as it can make it difficult to compare safety data between countries. One of the main differences in reporting standards and formats is the way in which incidents and accidents are classified. For example, in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) uses a system known as the Aviation Accident and Incident Data System (AIDS) to classify incidents and accidents. This system categorises incidents and accidents based on the level of damage sustained by the aircraft, the severity of injuries sustained by the occupants, and other factors. Other countries use different classification systems, which can make it difficult to compare safety data between countries.
Another difference in reporting standards and formats is the level of detail provided in incident and accident reports. Some countries may require detailed reports that include information about the causes of the incident or accident, while others may require only basic information. This can make it difficult to identify trends and areas for improvement if the data is not sufficiently detailed.
Despite the variations in mandatory and routine reporting standards and formats, there is no denying that the aviation industry has made significant strides in improving safety. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the accident rate for commercial aviation in 2020 was 0.27 per million flights. This is a significant improvement from the accident rate of 1.48 per million flights in 2010. The fatal accident rate for commercial aviation was also 0.13 per million flights in 2020, which is the lowest it has ever been.
However, the accident rate for general aviation is still significantly higher than that of commercial aviation. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, the accident rate for general aviation in 2019 was 4.49 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. This is a slight improvement from the 2018 rate of 4.54 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, but it is still significantly higher than the accident rate for commercial aviation.
The reasons for the higher accident rate in general aviation are complex and multifaceted. However, one contributing factor may be the differences in reporting requirements between general aviation and commercial aviation. Without comprehensive and consistent reporting, it can be difficult to identify trends and areas for improvement, which may lead to a higher accident rate.
The aviation industry has come a long way in improving safety over the years, but there is still work to be done. One area that requires attention is the variation in mandatory and routine reporting standards and formats across the globe. Differences between general aviation and commercial aviation reporting requirements can also have significant implications for safety. Sharing of data is generally good across aviation, however data sources can still be ‘siloed’ whereby data not directly involved in safety can be difficult to access or not used to its full potential.
For both commercial and private operators the current global reporting standards must adapt to meet the needs of these disruptors to the market. This means reporting must become more consistent, easier to use and owners/operators must be incentivised to collaborate on safety in both established and new sectors of the industry.