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'Accidents are unacceptable': Sandia lends its safety, reliability expertise to the FAA

Sandia’s role in helping the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) design a new systematic approach to airline safety was highlighted during an FAA news conference last week in Washington, D.C.

The FAA expects the new program to help its nationwide team of 3,700 airline inspectors more effectively track safety trends and spot problem areas in the nation’s fleet of aging commercial aircraft.

During the May 13 news conference, Department of Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and FAA Administrator Jane Garvey announced the FAA’s plan to adopt the new inspection program, called the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), beginning this fall for the nation’s 10 largest passenger carriers.

A panel of experts, including Larry Ellis of Decision Support System Programs Dept. 6531, participated in the news conference and subsequent panel discussion.

"By the year 2010, more than one billion people will travel each year on US airlines," Garvey said. "With this dynamic growth, it’s very important that we use the best possible tools, the best possible techniques, to enhance safety. Sandia has some very special skills, some unique skills and experience, in building safety, security, and reliability into systems, and we’re delighted and pleased to have them as partners."

High-consequence experience

Sandia has worked with the FAA since 1996 to redesign its airline inspection program to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly complex commercial aircraft industry. Traditionally air carriers have received both scheduled inspections and random spot checks at the discretion of assigned FAA inspectors. The inspections focus on the airlines’ compliance with federal regulations. This nonsystematic approach relies heavily on the expertise of the individual inspectors.

Contributing its experience in systems engineering, system safety, and quality improvement derived from decades of nuclear weapons work, Sandia helped the FAA design a more systematic approach to airline inspection, called the Surveillance Improvement Process, which became the basis for ATOS. ATOS focuses on risk factors as they relate to the business practices of individual airlines.

"In both nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor environments, accidents are simply unacceptable," Larry said. "We use applied system safety principles to identify the critical elements of a system, identify the hazards and the risks associated with them, and then address those in a proactive manner."

"We’ve been able to lend to the FAA our expertise in system safety and quality improvement based on decades of applying those principles to high-consequence engineering problems," adds Roger Hartman of Airworthiness Assurance Dept. 6352.

As part of ATOS, each air carrier will have a comprehensive surveillance plan customized for its operations and will be assigned its own Certificate Management Team (CMT). Each team’s inspectors will be trained in system safety and risk analysis and versed in the particular policies and procedures of their assigned airline.

Safety built into ATOS

The CMTs will ensure that individual carriers’ business practices, from baggage-handling policies to engine maintenance schedules, include built-in attributes and controls that enhance the safety of their operations. CMT inspectors will still carry out maintenance-related inspections, but with much more than compliance issues in mind, Garvey said.

"Perhaps the biggest difference between ATOS and the current approach is that ATOS focuses more on the system, more on the procedures, than on the [safety] records themselves," she said. "ATOS recognizes that . . . no two carriers operate in exactly the same way."

Sandia is conducting a series of follow-on studies – from data-quality evaluations to risk assessments – to support FAA in implementing ATOS. The FAA plans to continually evaluate the effectiveness of ATOS and make improvements.

The FAA also is working on a new nationwide database that it hopes will provide access to a range of aircraft safety information so that inspectors can zero in on emerging safety issues. Geographic inspectors will gather and validate national safety data.

ATOS takes off Oct. 1

This fall, some 900 CMT inspectors will be trained by the FAA in ATOS procedures. Then in October, ATOS will be implemented for the 10 largest US passenger carriers, as well as any new carrier certified by the FAA. Other carriers will be introduced to the system by October 1999.

The FAA hopes ATOS will "take the agency beyond the role of enforcer and foster a higher level of safety through more focused, extensive inspections tailored to each individual air carrier," according to an FAA news release. (More information about ATOS is available at the FAA’s ATOS Web site: afs/atos.)

ATOS supports the President’s Safer Skies agenda, Garvey said. "By the end of this year," she said, "ATOS will begin to raise the bar above minimum compliance with aviation safety standards and will help us achieve our Safer Skies goal of reducing accidents by 80 percent over the next 10 years."