The aviation industry is among the safest modes of travel, boasting an impressive track record that has been built up over several decades. But in light of continued aviation growth worldwide, evolving airline operating models and the growing presence of remotely piloted drones, are current safety oversight mechanisms able to identify new risks in a changing aviation landscape?
To answer this question, we need to understand the fundamentals of how safety regulatory processes have worked thus far and what is being implemented for the future. Historically, the aviation industry in Europe purely revolved around compliance-based oversight, where prescriptive rules were used to set mandatory safety targets that operational stakeholders like airlines or ANSPs had to comply with. This approach worked well in the early phases of the aviation industry, but as the level of air traffic grew and the operational complexity of each State increased, it was found that further safety improvements could not be achieved using a 'one size fits all' compliance approach. What was needed was a step-by-step method, that could be moulded according to the operational characteristics of a state and would make risk identification, deployment of resources and mitigation efforts more effective. The Risk Based Oversight (RBO) process was conceived to answer this need.
RBO has now been trialled for a number of years in Air Traffic Management. The concept has seen growing prominence in industry discussions following its inclusion in the recently released Common Requirements Regulation (EU) 2017/373, which requires the European Member States to have implemented the process by 2020. A majority of States are currently either implementing or fine tuning their RBO processes to various degrees. Others are just starting to look at the process for implementation in the future. But has the RBO process really worked in terms of providing a safety oversight mechanism that can adapt to the changing aviation landscape?
Well it is not possible to provide a conclusive answer, backed by statistics, just yet. Based on my interactions and feedback received from European regulators, the RBO concept is well perceived and States are seeing improvements in their existing safety inspection mechanisms. It is apparent that the process is effective in identifying where operational risks lie and has enabled regulators to fulfil their oversight activities with less resources. But with the benefits that the RBO process offers, it does come with a few challenges.
A widely accepted limitation is the time it takes to develop new methodologies and fine tune existing methodologies. Secondly, the EASA paper on practices for risk-based oversight highlights that RBO methodologies cannot always capture new or emerging risks in adequate time. To me, automation could play a role in addressing both issues in the future. By using algorithms, it should be possible to collate real time data, highlight the main risk areas instantaneously and test numerous iterations of the RBO methodology to establish an optimum. However, for automation of RBO to work, a State would need to have a mature safety management framework already in place, that allows insights from RBO to seamlessly inform the safety activities of the State. Additionally, expert human judgement would continue to be essential in validating and overseeing the iterations of models before an optimum is agreed upon.
So, coming back to the question at the start, are current safety oversight mechanisms able to identify new risks presented by a changing aviation environment? I firmly believe that RBO is a step in the right direction. The process is filling gaps in compliance-based safety and given that it is tailored to the unique operational characteristics of a State, it has the capacity to evolve with the changing aviation landscape. I am certain that as regulators become more experienced with RBO in the future, we will hear more about the safety benefits it is bringing.