In a previous post, I discussed the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) that is used at some airlines to create a new kind of safety environment. In addition to ASAP, there is a program called the Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA, pronounced “Foe-KWA”). Whereas ASAP relies on self-disclosure for its success, it is limited to those reports that are turned in, as well as by the information that is actually provided in the narratives, thus limiting its scope and effectiveness.
FOQA, like ASAP, requires a joint approach among the airline, the FAA, and the pilot unions. Where FOQA differs is in the fact that the information is gleaned from the flight data recorders (FDRs) on board the airplanes. The data from the FDR is downloaded by the designated personnel, and the information that identifies flight numbers, crews, et cetera, is immediately separated.
Using some pretty sophisticated and slick computer software, it is possible to choose which parameters to study. Say, for instance, you want to check out all flights that exceeded a certain rate of descent in the terminal area, and did so for more than 10 seconds. You can find that.
Or, if you want to flnd flights that landed more than so many pounds over the max landing weight, you can. There are hundreds of parameters that can be searched individually, or thousands of combinations can be created. There are usually certain trends that the airline wants to track at a given time, so they will search those, as well as any other trigger points that have their interest.
The information can be viewed numerically or graphically, and it can also be viewed as a video playback, which allows it to be seen in real time and in context. It’s all very slick, but it’s also very time consuming to produce the videos, so only a select few are made.
Even if the folks in the FOQA office find that certain performance parameters are being exceeded by a certain amount, they can’t just call the crew or ground them—remember, they don’t know who the crew is, and nor does the FAA. Further, cockpit voice recorder (CVR) downloads are not used. However, they can reach out to the designated representative(s) from the union, who can then “open the envelope” to see who the crew is. Only the designated contact persons can actually contact the crew, and the crew does not have to share any information at all—or they can share whatever information they want to, without fear of retribution or discipline.
The reason that the program works this way is that it is against the law to use FDRs for discipline; CVRs are not used because voices are too easy to identify. In fact, the FDR and CVR can only be used when there is an accident. For some pilots, the very thought that the FDR information can be viewed outside of an accident is unsettling. FOQA works because the respect for the privacy of the crew is not only paramount, but also it is the fundamental basis on which the program is designed.
In fact, no crew will ever know that one of its flights or actions is being scrutinized unless the designated contact person calls. More importantly, the company and the FAA will never know. The tradeoff is that the airline—and the FAA—are able to extract extremely useful information that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get. As an example, a major airline was able to find out from FOQA that crews on one of its fleet types was unable to meet certain visual approach criteria at a particular airport. Thanks to the FOQA data, changes were made.
The U.S. airline industry is in the midst of an incredible run with regards to safety and accident prevention–which is proof that, done correctly, ASAP and FOQA, along with other safety and training programs, work. Industry and government have both embraced each program, and we have all embraced the results…even if we didn’t know it.—Chip Wright