Flight Safety: A focus on humans

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Whilst the rest of the world is excitedly talking, and arguing, about self-driving cars, electronic voting, and machine-learning, it's reflective of current concerns in our industry that Flight Safety Symposium 2016 mostly focused on humans. The two-day event gathered a diverse crowd of industry experts from 27 countries, to exchange thoughts, discuss exciting new technologies, and showcase various initiatives, on the topic of Flight Safety. Three parallel streams covered Airline Engineering and Maintenance Safety, Safety in Air Traffic Control, and Commercial Flight Safety. I was fortunate to be able to participate in a wide range of talks from all three sections.

One of the principal concerns of the Engineering and Maintenance stream was on how to recruit and train new engineers. As an entire generation of engineers is getting ready to retire in the next decade, finding competent and motivated young professionals to replace them is crucial. Boeing estimates that around 680,000 new technicians will be needed worldwide in the next 20 years, with about 20% of these in Europe. However, the field is struggling to attract students. Although these talks focused on the human they also embraced modern technology: new education solutions like remote learning and online testing were thoroughly discussed as attractive responses to the ongoing issues. A panel discussion revealed that the current gender imbalance in airline safety engineering has not gone unnoticed (only around 10% of aerospace engineering students in the UK are female) and various schemes to appeal to this untapped demographic are being considered as one potential answer to the recruitment problem.

Training was also a topic of discussion in the Commercial stream, where one of the main questions posed was: 'in the context of an increasingly reliable aviation system, where equipment failures are rare, how to train pilots to safely react to failures?' In amongst entertaining, if slightly frightening, tales and anecdotes of near-misses, displays of new data analysis technology which allows for personalised flight statistics for pilots and crew, and presentations on the limitations of radar systems during extraordinary weather events, the conversations revolved around the issue of transmitting this knowledge and experience to new trainees. This stream was the best attended, with much of the audience consisting of pilots and pilot training staff, who were keen to maintain Flight as the safest mode of transport, especially with current predictions expecting air traffic to double in the next 15 years .

These are just examples of the many the topics which focused on humans during the symposium. Others included: making safety a seamless component of the work culture, accounting for the human factor in safety assessments, managing fatigue from both ATC and pilots, the public perception of safety in our industry, and the use of English in Pilot/Controller communication. Although new technologies are constantly being developed and implemented to ensure the highest possible level of safety in the aviation industry, the symposium underlined what is already being discussed in the industry: that people should remain the primary focus. Moreover, it seems that the question approached here, is not whether the human can continue to be relevant in an increasingly automated world; but how the automated world can be developed to best support and enhance the human. This is an ethos which I have been happy to find reflected within Helios.

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