Believing in Zero

“So, what’s really going on with air safety?”

As ABC’s Aviation Analyst, it’s a constant refrain I hear these days. So let me take it head-on.

Airline safety is not coming apart at the seams, nor is flying becoming more dangerous. What IS happening, though, is that the effects of severe operational strain resulting from rapid airline recovery and expansion in the midst of a major and prolonged pilot shortage may be starting to show, like hairline cracks in a marble wall. The truth is, we’re not yet certain that there is any direct connection between the frightening set of near-misses of January and February, nor any specific weaknesses in the airline safety system, but we have to find out. In fact, it is precisely that worry – that lurking beneath the headline reporting of each close call may be a common causal element – that has driven the Secretary of Transportation and the acting FAA chief to organize a summit to delve into that very question. And, of course, mudballs are already being tossed in their direction thanks to the toxic and ridiculous political atmosphere in which a core percentage of Americans are daily whipped into discounting virtually everything government does as cynical. The reality is that this week’s meeting is precisely the right mechanism to use in squeezing out any possible cautionary lessons from each incident. And the overall question on the table? What may need to be changed in the intricate and successful airline safety system (which is a full partnership between government and industry). The participants will be asked for the equivalent of a CT scan of the beating heart of the safety system itself, and that includes the ethos and the philosophy of safety as well as the mechanical aspects.

Driving this publicly are two major close calls: an American 777 taxiing in front of an accelerating Delta 737 in JFK International Airport on January 13th, and a Fedex 767 aborting a low-visibility landing at Austin Bergstrom with a Southwest jet rolling down the same runway on February 4th. Each accident sequence was stopped by various emergency protocols and fast thinking. But the disturbing question is, how did each sequence get started in the first place, and what do those facts tell us about our system’s standards? Are some of them – the minimum distance allowed between a departing and arriving jet, for instance – slipping into dangerous ranges? Is there some form of growing complacency creating gaps through which a moment of cockpit inattention can imperil everyone?

And then there was the strange, publicly unexplained fourteen-hundred-foot dive of a United 777 departing Maui months earlier. The pilots recovered at 775 feet above the Pacific, but neither the airline nor the FAA have released a full explanation as to what started the dive in the first place, and that needs to change. Such an occurrence impacts public confidence, and leaving the contributing causes unreported merely adds to passenger jitters.

Each incident – JFK, Austin, and Maui – involved a complex sequence of events anchored in some form of human error. Fully finding and explaining what those causes were is vital, and something the flying public has a right and a need to have explained in honest detail.

In the eighties, we completely overhauled aviation safety by teaching ourselves to expect human mistakes and by building systems to safely absorb the mistakes even our best training couldn’t prevent. But perhaps the most spectacular achievement was learning to believe in “Zero” – zero accidents, zero incidents, and zero excuses for anything less than a laser focus on creating and maintaining a constantly vigilant safety culture. We convinced ourselves that zero was possible, and, as a direct result, we succeeded in making it so. But to keep that record intact, we need a new and intense examination of what’s going on. Maybe there is no commonality on these scary incidents, but we have to know – especially if the public’s faith in airline safety is to continue.

It’s been over a decade since the last major airline accident in the U.S. In the early 90’s, we never thought we could go more than a year without a major aerial tragedy, but what ultimately allowed us to succeed was simply the belief that we could. If now we’re in any danger of losing that winning edge, we have to discover why and address it immediately, because zero accidents is a goal worth fighting for.

In the meantime, New York, Austin, and Maui’s cage rattling close calls have efficiently focused public attention exactly where it belongs, and the FAA and DOT are to be lauded for acting with all due speed.