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What is a safety culture? Why does it matter

Home Articles What is a safety culture? Why does it matter

What is a safety culture?  Why does it matter?

by Michael Huerta, Kitty Hawk Leadership team and former FAA Administrator

Aviation has long had what is commonly referred to as a strong safety culture.  But what does that mean and why is it important?  

From the beginning of time, people have focused on moving around.  How best to get from place to place? And they looked to the sky and dreamed.  What if I could fly?  

Over time, we have seen huge advances in mobility, on the ground and in the air.  Today we think nothing of driving a half hour to get to work, to run errands, or to have dinner.  We take for granted that we can get from California to New York in a few hours, or to the other side of the world in time for a meeting the next day.  

But we have very different attitudes about how we get there.  One needs to look only at fatality rates for different modes of transportation.  Here in the United States, nearly 40,000 people are killed in highway crashes every year.  Conversely, the US commercial aviation fatality rate is virtually zero. Imagine if 40,000 people died every year in airline crashes.  We would all expect that the system would be shut down. How is it that as a society we can tolerate such a large number of deaths on the highways, while having such a high expectation for aviation safety?  

The answer has to do with the public’s perception of what they can control.  When you and I get in our cars, we believe that we are in control – that we are good drivers.  We believe that we can handle any situation that we might encounter on the road. If there is a problem, it is with the other driver.  But when we get on an airplane, we think we surrender that control to the people who built the aircraft, who are flying the plane, and who are tracking our progress to ensure that we do not conflict with other aircraft.  We want to be assured that someone is making sure it is safe for us and for our loved ones.  

In the U.S., that someone is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  The FAA works closely with operators, manufacturers and labor organizations  across the aviation and aerospace industries, to establish and improve safety standards. The agency also has a robust research program that looks not only at where we are at present, but also where new innovations might take us in the future.  

Over the history of aviation, there have been huge advancements in safety.  Many of these are due to the deployment of advanced technologies. Traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) are onboard all commercial flights greatly reducing the risk of midair collisions. Voice alerts and heads-up displays provide pilots with greater situational awareness.  Other safety advancements are due to improvements in training and operating practices. Recent US regulations that address flight duty and rest as well as training for pilots are designed to ensure that pilots are well rested and familiar with real-world situations that might develop in flight.  

What underlies all of these advances is a guiding philosophy that says that safety information should be broadly shared across the entire aviation industry.  Starting in 1997 with the establishment of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), airlines and operators, pilots and regulators have shared safety information across the industry as common practice.  With this data, operators are in a much better position to identify and prioritize risk in the system. During my time as FAA Administrator, we took this approach to the next level requiring that commercial carriers have safety management systems to evaluate and prioritize risk and to mitigate it.  We also introduced a compliance philosophy focused on making sure that the relationship between the regulator and the industry is focused on ensuring compliance with safety standards, not simply on prosecuting enforcement actions.  

Everyone in aviation will agree that we do not compete on safety.  If one airline sees a safety problem in their operation, they will ensure that what they learn is widely shared across the industry.  There is also extensive collaboration between national aviation authorities across the world. Aviation safety is not bound by national borders.   Anything we can do to make the global system safer is good for all of us.  

This is what has resulted in aviation’s strong safety culture.  

So, what is a safety culture?  It is usually described as attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and values relating to safety of the people in an organization.  The International Civil Aviation Organization, in its safety management handbook, put it this way; a safety culture is characterized by “employees’ actions regarding safety when no one is watching.”  But a safety culture is not limited to any single organization. Aviation safety is the ultimate team sport.  Pilots need to collaborate with air traffic controllers to maintain safety in flight.  Airlines and manufacturers need to collaborate with regulators to ensure that safety standards are met.  And regulators across the globe must work together to constantly improve safety overall.  

Why does it matter?  Aviation is successful only if the public has confidence that flying is safe.  Today, we are on the verge of a whole new dimension in aviation enabled by the deployment of eVTOL aircraft with companies like Kitty Hawk and others.  This has great potential to alleviate traffic congestion in urban areas. As we look to expand the scope of aviation to include new modes of urban air mobility, our ultimate success will rest not just on convincing people of its convenience, but also that it is safe.  

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