Expanding its analysis of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) plans to identify threats to aviation safety in masses of data, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on June 11th to the House Committee on Science and Technology that the agency is on the right track in looking at their massive data files for safety trends in the air system in an effort to avoid future accidents.
The report, Aviation Safety: Improved Data Quality and Analysis Capabilities are Needed as FAA Plans a Risk-Based Approach to Safety Oversight, was requested by Members of the Science and Technology Committee, including Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), Senior Member Jerry Costello (D-IL), who is also Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC), andSpace and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Research and Science Education Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), former Committee Member.
"I'm encouraged that the FAA is adopting the view that it's time to go looking for problems before they show up as smashed aircraft and grieving families," saidChairman Gordon, lead requester for the report.
“This kind of analysis is a significant undertaking, and we will continue to follow the FAA’s progress to make sure they get the best possible results. As I have said before, maintaining the highest level of safety in our aviation system must be our top priority,” stated Senior Committee Member Costello.
GAO emphasizes in its report the need for strong policies and procedures governing the management of the massive flows of data to be collected and analyzed. Here again, while the FAA has developed a draft plan for data management, GAO notes that the plan "does not define the level of accuracy and completeness needed for the data, indicate what metrics and processes FAA will use to assess the data, or identify any specific data" – and there is no date for finishing the plan. The FAA will also need employees with statistical backgrounds and experience in the aviation industry to make this a success, but GAO notes that this will be a hiring challenge for the agency.
The Committee asked GAO for this report in the wake of controversy surrounding the National Aviation Operational Monitoring System (NAOMS) at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) two years ago. Subcommittee Chairman Miller noted that, "GAO's report today reaffirms the value of asking the people who work in aviation about possible safety problems. There are gaps in data gathered from FAA’s voluntary reporting that a NAOMS survey would fill.” The report quotes both NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board that voluntary reporting data provides information we do not see in the Flight Operation Quality Assurance data downloaded from aircraft.
“I am going to work to ensure that NASA and the FAA cooperate to bring these systems into being so that we achieve the hoped-for improvements in aviation safety,” stated Subcommittee Chairwoman Giffords.
Chairman Gordon concluded, "There is one aspect of success that isn't in GAO's report, but we will need to keep in mind. Once the FAA is relying on safety management systems, it must be ready to act when the data starts signaling a problem."