Despite Recent Safety Record, FAA May Lack Key Data

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Recent GAO report details ways to improve aviation safety data collection.

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By most accounts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has achieved a very strong safety record in airline oversight.  There have been no commercial aviation fatalities in over four years, despite almost 80,000 daily flights.

The success of federal oversight of the U.S. aviation industry depends in large part on the strength of the FAA’s data—which can only be as strong as the agency’s reporting requirements.  A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation argues that the FAA needs to implement new data-collection policies to identify possible trends and causal relationships in several areas, including runway and ramp safety, airborne operational errors, and pilot training.

According to the report, the FAA is in the midst of adopting a proactive approach to data analysis, so the GAO notes that now would be an ideal time to expand the types of data the agency collects.

FAA data on incidents on the ground space near airports do not currently include information about runway overruns, in which an airplane mistakenly veers off the runway.  Nor do these data include incidents in the ramp area located closest to the airport.  Collecting these two types of information could improve terminal area safety, the GAO argues.

Similarly, the FAA’s data on operational errors, which happen  “when two aircraft fly closer together than safety standards permit due to an air traffic controller error,” are not complete because they are limited to incidents between radar-tracked aircraft.  According to the GAO, a data gap arises from the lack of information about incidents between aircraft and the ground or between aircraft and restricted airspace.  GAO says that collecting these data would allow the agency to monitor better the efficacy of the air traffic control system.

Federal regulations require the FAA to inspect pilot training schools and their trainers on-site at least annually.  The GAO found that the agency successfully inspected a majority of FAA-certified schools once a year, but its recordkeeping on annual inspections of non-certified schools, which tend to train recreational pilots, was noticeably absent.  This lack of accurate, complete data means, to the GAO, that “it is difficult to ensure that regulatory compliance and safety standards are being met,” something which is necessary for the FAA to determine if all pilot schools are providing adequate training.

The GAO does applaud the FAA for recognizing the value of its recommendations on data-collection and recordkeeping policies, as the aviation safety agency is actively taking steps to implement recommendations contained in this and earlier GAO reports.  Nevertheless, the GAO encourages the agency to remain vigilant against oversight complacency by collecting more robust data and analyzing them to discover new ways to safeguard the U.S. aviation industry.