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Business Aviation Safety is Behind the Times… and Catching Up

Posted on: October 1st, 2012 by Pete Agur

Business Aviation Safety is Behind the Times…

and Catching Up

By Peter v. Agur, Jr.

Founder, The VanAllen Group, Inc.


Do you assume you are safe in your company airplane?  Did you know there is no direct correlation between the success of a company and the safety of its aviation services?  That is the consensus among a prestigious group of aviation safety experts I recently queried, including a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, numerous leading safety auditors and a cross section of the directors of aviation of Fortune 500 companies.

I routinely talk with the leaders of Fortune 500 companies and very high net worth individuals about their business aviation operations.  These powerful people expect and support at least Best Industry Practices for their company’s aviation safety.

I assume you are no different.  You have trusted that what you expected was what you were getting.  But you also trust that your doctors are among the best.  And you think that is what you are getting because they haven’t hurt you… yet.  The problem is there is no easy way to inspect what you expect from either your physicians or your flight department.  Until now.

The first aviation safety efforts were reactive.  Reactive safety management focuses on “Thou shall not”.  It is the basis for most regulations.  But, the most highly regulated mode of air travel is on-demand air taxi or charter services.  If you could regulate safety into action then charter operations would have the best safety record of all modes of air travel.  It doesn’t.  In fact, they have an accident rate that is four to five times as great as that of the major airlines, the large fractional aircraft programs and professionally flown business aviation (all three of which have nearly identical accident rates).  Reactive safety management is not enough to assure safety.

The second giant step, proactive safety management, started in the mid-80s.  Six Sigma helped us understand the power of variance management as it relates to aviation safety.  Full motion simulator training, Crew Resource Management (teamwork for crews), and a number of technology improvements, have proactively enhanced the avoidance of repeating tragic events.  The pay-off has been that the airline and professionally flown business aviation accident rate has been cut in half.  But a key element of Six Sigma has been missing for aviation: effective metrics.

If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.  “Accident Rate” does not measure safety.  It measures failure.  The third major step in aviation safety is shifting our metrics to those of success.  They are predictive of safe performance.  After all, you cannot manage history.  You can influence the future.

Predictive safety management identifies and mitigates known or predictable threats or risks.  Basic risk assessment tools are matrices that look at the probability of an event (rare–certain) and its consequences (negligible–catastrophic). They have helped us understand the issues and opportunities associated with predicting safe performance.  They have helped us focus on the hundreds of elements on each trip leg that affect the levels of risk that can be identified and managed.

Risk management tools are evolving rapidly.  A number of software programs have come onto the market that look at the various arenas of risk (human, aircraft, weather, airport, et cetera) and break each arena down into specific risk elements.  For instance, for the human arena there are dozens of elements like fatigue, flight experience, crew pairings, aircraft experience, et cetera.  Those elements are further broken down to sub-elements.  Each sub-element is then scored based on its probability and impact (threat).

Up to a certain cumulative score, the leg of a planned flight can be accomplished without further review.  Above this first hurdle, the leg must be assessed by a manager who works with the crew to confirm that the risks are understood and the steps to effectively mitigate them are in place.  If the leg yields a score above a “no-go” hurdle, the leg cannot be flown without mitigating the critical risks in a manner that is acceptable to both the crew and the manager.

The current technology is semi-automated.  The process is burdensome and not easily applied.  But the results are useful.  The elegant answer will be integrated software packages that draw from aircraft performance, crew, weather, airport and other databases to comprehensively assess all the trip factors and highlight the ones that need attention.

One of the greatest benefits of predictive safety metrics is they will allow you, the owner and passenger, to set standards of risk levels and receive meaningful reports on risk mitigation performance.  For the first time you will have factual information about how safe you really are.

Over the coming months I will be conducting a study with a handful of business aviation departments on the advanced application of predictive safety metrics.  The goal will be to effectively manage risks to an even higher standard of safety.  The results will be presented next spring.  Let me know if you would like a copy of our findings.




Peter v. Agur Jr. is managing director and founder of The VanAllen Group, a management consulting firm to business aviation with expertise in safety, aircraft acquisitions, and  leader selection and development.  A member of the Flight Safety Foundation’s Corporate Advisory Committee and the NBAA’s Corporate Aviation Managers Committee (emeritus), he has an MBA, an airline transport pilot certificate and is an NBAA Certified Aviation Manager.


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