Continuous Improvement of Air Safety

I was fascinated by a story this week about improvements in air safety. While I may be stretching things a bit, it seemed to me to be a good example of an attitude of continuous improvement in the airline industry.

The New York Times reported that fatal crashes of airplanes in the United States have declined 65 percent over the last 10 years.

            Part of the reason is technology, such as improvements in cockpit instruments that help planes steer clear of mountains when visibility is poor.

            However, the story also says


…part of the explanation certainly lies in the payoff from sustained efforts by American and many foreign airlines to identify and eliminate small problems that are common precursors to accidents.

One oft-cited example is a discovery in the last decade by US Airways (then US Air) that many of its planes approaching Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina were coming in “high and hot,” too fast and at a steep angle.

As a result, airplanes were conducting “unstabilized approaches,” meaning pilots had to fiddle with flaps, throttle and other controls just before landing.

The US Airways discovery at Charlotte was something new because the airline did not demonstrate it after a crash or from pilot reports.

The airline instead tapped into the system that feeds information to one of the “black boxes,” the flight data recorder, and siphoned off a stream of data that went to a removable recording device. Then it analyzed flights by the hundreds and looked for unusual patterns, a technique now common with airlines.

Convinced, the FAA changed the approach procedure there, and the airport installed a system to guide planes at a proper angle.


…In other places, improvements have been as simple as better signs on taxiways to prevent planes from moving into the path of other aircraft.


“It’s not one thing. It’s a series of small things,” said John Cox, who was an Air Line Pilots Association safety representative for 20 years. Many of those small things were minor problems observed in everyday operations, he said, then counted, scrutinized and eliminated before they caused an accident.


I doubt that those involved in these improvement efforts were familiar with lean principles or terminology. However, what is important is that they were not simply being reactive. They were studying processes that, on the surface, seemed to be working reasonably well and looking for ways to improve them. And that is what continuous improvement is all about.


1 comment:

Ralph Bernstein said...

10/5/2007 12:49:52 PM
Re: Continuous Improvement of Air Safety -1
By: dcbliss

Great story, Ralph. The airline industry gets its share of criticism (with some justification), but it's nice to see the use of data to make system changes and the attitude of improvement.