Sunday, February 26, 2017

Air-Safety Overhaul Taps Confidential Incident Data to Prevent Crashes: Regulators in United States, Europe seeking to reduce risks by pressing airlines to lift confidentiality safeguards



The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
February 26, 2017 5:33 a.m. ET


In a major air-safety initiative, U.S. and European regulators are seeking to make voluntary incident reports more useful by ending strict confidentiality protections that typically have kept some important details shrouded.

Under the change, analysts will be able to fuse what used to be separate data streams regarding the same event to create a more complete picture of safety lapses, close calls and other potentially dangerous slip-ups. But some airlines and pilot groups remain wary of possible privacy violations.

The aim is to combine details from different sources—including pilot reports, flight data downloaded from aircraft and air-traffic-control information—to create comprehensive narratives of incidents that can be shared industrywide to prevent accidents.

Proponents say the shift, which hasn’t been announced by authorities or airlines, represents the biggest advance in proactive aviation-safety management in roughly a decade.

Traditionally, industry and government safety experts were blocked from correlating an array of data streams because dates, locations and other identifying facts were deleted before the start of any analysis. The result was ironclad safeguards that aviators and carriers couldn’t be publicly linked to specific risky or embarrassing mistakes.

The new strategy builds on years of analysis of such confidential data sources—and it is already providing safety payoffs.

Initially, it was used to better understand how commercial pilots nationwide reacted to emergency midair-collision warnings, according to industry officials familiar with the details.

Later, it helped uncover patterns of airliners descending on hazardous approaches that could result in landing at excessive speeds or touching down too far along airstrips, these officials said. Based on more recent analyses, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last month issued a safety advisory warning airline pilots to pay special attention to staying within precisely designated airspace while descending to land near private planes that may not be communicating with controllers.

An FAA spokeswoman said broader reliance on enhanced data will provide “unprecedented insight” into daily commercial operations, enabling the agency and the aviation community “to detect and mitigate risks before they impact the traveling public.”

The changes mean the total confidentiality of the past has been pierced by new data-handling procedures that are gaining traction across the U.S. For millions of flights annually, an array of identifying details are now briefly available so they can be merged into a more comprehensive mosaic of what occurred.

Called “Fusion,” the initiative also is in the planning stages across the Atlantic, where the European Aviation Safety Agency hopes to kick off its own similar voluntary data-sharing operation next year.

Above all, the goal is to identify budding hazards and extract lessons from the torrent of data. Voluntary incident reporting has been the primary catalyst for record-low accident rates in the U.S. and around the globe.

According to the FAA, more than a dozen airlines currently participating in fusing data, including some regional carriers, account for slightly more than half of all U.S. commercial flights. The agency projects nearly full airline participation in 2018.

Even though such identifiable information is stored only in the servers of a federally funded research organization and disappears within a day, the process has prompted concerns among some airline and pilot-union officials about the threat of unauthorized disclosures.

The main confidentiality safeguard, according to the FAA, is that raw data “is only accessible by technical specialists,” who then encrypt the information before wider use.

European carriers and regulators are slated to meet next month to work out the details of their planned system, which in the early phases could cover some 1.5 million airliner flights annually. Authorities from the U.K., France, Spain and Ireland are on board, but proponents are still waiting for industry approvals.



Fusion “will be the plan we will push for” because it “can have a lot of value,” Erick Ferrandez, EASA’s program manager for voluntary data, said in an interview. But he noted “it took a long time to have the trust and confidence” in place among U.S. participants.

Today’s complex data-fusion computer programs were developed and are run by Mitre Corp., a nonprofit that operates research centers for federal agencies. In 2008, the FAA and a small group of airlines launched a pioneering analysis and information-sharing program called ASIAS, which relied on Mitre to analyze de-identified data.

Now, ASIAS has expanded to include nearly four dozen airlines and 34 business-aircraft operators, along with plane makers and maintenance organizations. It is widely acknowledged as the global leader in sophisticated air-safety-data analysis, and moves are under way to implement versions of it in Europe, Canada, Asia and elsewhere.

Peggy Gilligan, slated to retire next month after nearly eight years as the FAA’s top safety official, has been an outspoken champion of voluntary information sharing across regions. Last summer, she told an industry conference that accurate data pinpointing potential safety threats prompts airline officials, on their own, to realize “something is wrong and I need help getting it fixed.”

During the early years of ASIAS, airlines and FAA officials had to build trust that data wouldn’t be misused to single out carriers or pilots for enforcement action or other punishment. Now, similar confidence-building steps are playing out as Fusion progresses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Industry officials said United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. have been among the Fusion program’s strongest proponents. Delta declined to comment, while a United Continental spokesman said “we support the expansion of ASIAS and development of Fusion.”

American Airlines Group Inc., the largest U.S. airline by traffic, is also close to signing on, according to industry officials. A spokesman for the company said it is “one of the largest contributors to ASIAS” and is evaluating the next evolution, “which brings together all of the various data sources in order to fully understand an event.”

Original article can be found here:  https://www.wsj.com

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