Getting to Zero: How Commercial Jetliners Recorded Their Safest Year Ever

2017 was a record year for commercial passenger jets.  It was the first year on record when they did not record a single fatality.  The news comes from the Flight Safety Foundation which tracks  world passenger airline industry incidents.  While there were 10 fatal airliner accidents in 2017, five involved cargo transport and five were from turboprops.  For commercial passenger jets, there were no fatalities out of nearly 37 million flights.  What does it take to reach that milestone?

An investigator and former pilot named John Cox told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s the culmination of decades of work by thousands of people.”

Here are some things that may have been critical factors in the 2017 success:

  1. Universal agreement on goals – The industry, government regulators and, most definitely, passengers all agree that the only acceptable number of accidents is zero.  The airlines understand that they cannot cut corners on safety and, if a company does violate a safety rule, the penalties are harsh and industry accepts that.
  2. Scenario-based procedures – Most people will remember the incident when a United jet lost power and  Sully Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River.  Most people would not know that while Sullenberger was piloting, his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, immediately opened the procedures manual to look for a way to restore power.  Airlines create procedures for every conceivable scenario and if they discover that they have missed one (as happened in the United flight) they fix the error. They put a lot of work into them, they train on them and they use them.
  3. They do a lot of things wrong, but safety isn’t one of them – We need to acknowledge that a lot of the airlines behaved badly in 2017, including the case of a doctor being dragged off a flight.  However, while those incidents got headlines, the airlines got it right on safety.   We all hate it when our flight is delayed or even cancelled because of a faulty light bulb in the cockpit, but the airlines do put safety ahead of convenience.
  4. They don’t rest on their record – Commercial jet pilots go through a flight proficiency check on a simulator or actual plane every 6-12 months and, according to one expert, may have 20-40 hours of additional training a year.  It is also worth noting that when you go to the news section for the Flight Safety Foundation you don’t see an article patting themselves on the back for their safety record in 2017.  You see an investigation into a near miss where the jet iced up and dropped 4,000 feet before the pilot regained control.  
  5. Luck – We can’t avoid that fact that probability plays a role.  It is reasonable to set a goal of zero accidents, but it is unrealistic to predict there won’t be any accidents.  There are so many variables, jets are such complex pieces of machinery and human factors play such an important role that the potential for a black swan, a low probability but unanticipated event, can’t be ruled out.

We can hope 2018 is as safe as 2017.  Compare that to you industry.   Do your companies approach safety the same way that the airlines do?  If not, why?

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