Defining “Safe”

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"Safe" Aircraft Parked in the Desert

"Safe" Aircraft Parked in the Desert

The Iceland Eyjafjallajokull volcano has caused quite a ruckus within the aviation industry over the past 10 days, but it’s not the volcano or flight safety in ash clouds that I’m writing about. While reading about the grounded flights, I came across a quote from one of the union leaders and a 737 pilot for one of the European airlines. They basically said the only way you are truly safe in aviation is to ground all your aircraft and never fly again. That along with some discussions with co-workers brings me to this blog’s topic, what do we mean by “safe” in aviation?

Every airline and aviation organization will emphasize that safety is their number one priority, which I interpret as the operator will do everything in its power to be as safe as possible. Well I have to agree with the union leader that the best way to be accident free and truly safe is to sell your airplanes, but that business model doesn’t work in commercial aviation. Flying is inherently risky. You’re taking a machine composed of millions of parts, operating and maintaining it with people, and flying it thousands of feet in the air at hundreds of miles per hour through varying meteorological conditions. This sounds perfectly safe, doesn’t it? So how do we explain being safe?

We need to revamp our perception of aviation safety. There is no doubt that every operator strives for a goal of zero accidents. However, we recognize that we operate in an immensely complicated system and sometimes things happen – people make errors or components and systems fail. Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous but it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.

Instead of stating safety is our number one priority, we should clarify the safety objective and state that we always seek to operate in a manner that we deem as an acceptable risk. Flying will always be risky, but if airlines can proactively manage that risk and ensure it is at an acceptable level, we’ll be close to practicing what we preach and being honest with the traveling public. How do you operate with an acceptable risk -with an active and comprehensive Safety Management System (SMS).

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2 Comments on "Defining “Safe”"

  1. Telling airlines that all they need to do is “proactively manage that risk” strikes me as little more than buzz words and a perpetual re-delegation of tasks.

    How do they ACTUALLY do that? To manage risk one must know where the risk comes from. And it seems all to easy to blur the line between ‘managing’ it and ‘interpreting’ it with post-mortem hindsight.

    It may be my cynicism toward bureaucracy talking, but current tactics clearly leave things to be desired in some areas (further substantiating the need for something like SMS), and the last thing we need is more of the same. Regulatory reform is incremental. Maybe a real dent can be made in the idea of an “equivalent level of safety” where the individual process assumed by an airline has more latitude for customization – and dare I say innovation – while still achieving an established goal.

    Perhaps an overhaul of information management and safety reporting is on the horizon. I’d like to send you, Dustin, my marked up copy of Sidney Dekker’s “Why we need new accident models” in advance of a greater discussion.


  2. Dustin Wilcox | April 30, 2010 at 11:15 am | Reply

    I think you mistook the direction of the blog. I did not intended to discuss how airlines manage risk, but instead how they define being safe. If we pull up the definition of safe, Webster’s says “free from harm or risk.” Flying is never free from risk. Any honest person in the aviation industry will tell you that. So how can we say being safe is our number one priority when we continue to operate aircraft? I merely wanted to broach the topic that as an industry we need to better define what our true goal is and explain it as such. By saying that our goal is to operate in an acceptable risk range we are being honest with ourselves and with the public. How they identify risks, assess, and mitigate them and defining an acceptable range is up to them. I agree with your statements that new and better ways may be out there for identifying risks, but we can barely get organizations to buy into and implement the standard SMS. How will we push them to uncharted airspace without some kind of requirement? We live and work in an industry that is reluctant to do new things unless it helps the bottom line. Hindsight is always going to be 20/20. Sometimes it’s just near impossible to determine how some minor change will affect the complex beast we are in (the proverbial “If a butterfly flaps it’s wings…” quote). Can we do better? Definitely. Should we try to do better? For sure. I believe step number one is being honest on what we are trying to achieve.

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