A number of worrying recent incidents have given rise to concerns about aviation safety, including from US Senators who demand action.
Thanks to social media and technology in general, people are much more aware of bigger and smaller aviation incidents than they used to be. The idea that even a really specialized publication can use GPS data to determine the approximate number of Gs that an airliner was subjected to as it pulled out of a dive, would have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.
But that’s how The Air Current and Flightradar24 analyzed what happened on United Airlines flight UA1722. Of course, having the ability to access such information is a good thing. Unfortunately, this access does very little to alleviate people’s fears about aviation safety, in the US and elsewhere.
Last Tuesday, acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen announced the formation of a safety review team, to examine the structure, culture, processes, systems, and integration of safety efforts in US aerospace. Beyond commercial aviation in the US, the study will also look at the safety practices in general aviation and the Air Traffic Organization.
Examining US Aviation Safety
A day later, a number of American lawmakers voiced their concerns, citing a number of issues that they expect the FAA to address. The failure of the FAA’s system for delivering NOTAMs drew particular attention. “The FAA must have redundancies, and not a single point where a failure can happen in a key system”, said Senate Commerce chair Maria Cantwell.
There is more public scrutiny of other aviation safety incidents in the US. They include a runway incursion in JFK, a near collision between a Southwest and a FedEx flight in Austin, and the aforementioned sudden dive of a United 777 in Hawaii. US lawmakers and others are concerned that these safety incidents could undermine confidence in aviation if the public sees them as points in a pattern.
This is what the FAA’s upcoming safety review team is targeting. With regards to the NOTAMs system, the FAA says that it has already implemented a fix. A system upgrade, that includes a backup database, ensures that a fault can’t cause another collapse of the system. The fault in January had to do with contractors who deleted files that they thought were redundant. The event didn’t add safety risks, but to many, it undermined the US public’s perception of aviation.
In total, the collapse of the NOTAMs system in January affected over 11,000 flights. This was despite the fact that the outage itself only lasted about an hour and a half. After Southwest’s own gargantuan problems in December, it is clear that even relatively short disruptions can expose weaknesses in other systems, causing larger chain reactions.