The Future of Airports: Enhancing Aviation Safety Under a Growing and More Diverse Traffic (Topic No. 5)

02 June 2020 Airport of the Future
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The Airport Think Tank of ENAC Alumni published last month the global analysis of The Future of Airports. Each week, discover a new focus on one of the 11 topics of this research initiative.

Generally speaking, the number of fatalities per revenue passenger kilometers (RPK) has decreased quasi-continuously since the years 1970. However, this function has a logarithm-like shape – which means that it is becoming increasingly difficult with our current conception of safety to reduce fatalities as we are improving safety overall. Over the second half of the 20th century, standards in airfield design were mainly conservative and prescriptive. The progress of the overall knowledge in flight control and airport engineering bolstered by the need for accommodating larger aircraft at existing infrastructure showed these standards were often overestimating risks and sometimes underestimating them. These efforts fostered a mutual understanding of the stakeholders of airfield design and certification – airport operators, aircraft manufacturers, and civil aviation authorities. More importantly, this created a momentum in safety and regulations that enabled the emergence and rise of the risk-based approach.

We have already developed most of the infrastructure enhancements possible for ensuring aviation safety at airports. “Hardware” design standards have reached an exceptional maturity. Mitigation measures were developed for addressing the most impactful deviations to these standards. Safety Management System (SMS) is a systemic and systematic vision of safety that was adopted by the ICAO in 2004. While some countries are still in the process of implementing it at airports, it is now a well-accepted international standard that has significantly contributed to the advancement of operational safety – including on the traffic and non-movement areas with the inclusion of ramp safety and ground handling. SMS has helped to bring together the stakeholders of airport operations at individual airports to build a joint ambition in aviation safety.

The next frontier to improve safety standards is made of real-time systems and data. Data sharing and real-time analysis of these data will increase both operational performance and safety. For example, the lack of safety data available have prevented airport safety risk analyses from being as quantitative and comprehensive as they should be, and National Aviation Authorities to get a detailed vision of safety issues – a condition for designing an efficient State Safety Programme (SSP). A more systematic reporting of accidents and incidents, and the centralization of these data, start helping airports and agencies to get this vision and utilize data to improve safety in complement of lessons learned directly from the field.

The next step may not be based of ground equipment. The future of airside safety also resides in cockpit equipment such as Runway Incursion Prevention Systems (RIPS), aircraft-ground data exchange, and the use of big data. Several cockpits already navigate airfields with the assistance of dynamic digital aerodrome charts. With in-flight updates, these charts could include the latest aeronautical information published by airports, provide enhanced guidance information during taxiing, and raise awareness and generate alerts on airfield safety issues such as runway incursions and wingspan restrictions.

It is vital to acknowledge that the level of safety is not the same throughout the world. Airports and oversight authorities shall work at closing the gap on ICAO standards. They should be inspired by the recommended practices as well to champion safety. Moreover, they shall become aware of their local specificities and gaps, and work on addressing them timely. The ICAO Global Aviation Safety Plan (GASP) is calling for such effort worldwide. The previous plan fell short in bringing all states up to the target on effective oversight implementation by 2017. The ongoing plan aims at getting each country to define and implement a State Safety Program (SSP). It is expected that the next period to the 2028 horizon focuses on implementing advanced safety oversight systems, including predictive risk management – a step that the most advanced countries have already achieved.

As of today, the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) reveals that the average global effective implementation of ICAO’s standards and recommended practices (SARP) with regard to aerodromes is of 62.29%. Considering the items at stake, this is a poor performance – and it is one of the lowest implementation rates of all the USOAP domains. Airports and the other stakeholders of flight operations need strong National Aviation Authorities to support national industries and ensure the safety of the overall air transportation ecosystem. In the less performant regions, a safety revolution is urgently needed to safeguard passengers and aviation assets. Beyond compliance with ICAO standards on oversight, each segment of the air transportation system shall comply with international standards and best practices, and a safety culture shall develop inside the aviation community, from the field to the executive management and governments.

Beyond the needs in infrastructure and equipment (“hardware”), a strong airport safety culture shall emerge within the airport staff and among the stakeholders (“software”). It should take into consideration the human and organizational aspects of safety. It shall be supported by the top management, embraced by the field, enable bottom-up reporting, be transverse throughout the airport organization, include the stakeholders as well. It means providing adequate means and training to the acting staff, and ultimately implementing Safety Management Systems (SMS). It also means fostering a safety culture based on transparency, non-punitive reporting, lessons learned and risk management.


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