The rapid growth, and emerging importance, of the Middle East in the global commercial aviation industry is well-documented. Airbus, in its most recent global market forecast, predicts that the region’s commercial passenger traffic, as measured in revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs), will represent 13 percent of global RPKs by 2033, up from 8 percent in 2013.1 Aircraft orders from air carriers domiciled in the Middle East — particularly Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and the region’s numerous low-cost operators — represent significant portions of the backlogs at Boeing and Airbus, and both manufacturers expect more than 2,000 commercial airliners to be delivered into the region by 2033.2,3
In addition, the Middle East is growing in importance as a connecting hub for traffic flows between regions, much to the consternation of competitors from other regions, particularly Europe.4 That growth, however, is among the safety challenges faced by operators, air navigation service providers, regulators and other stakeholders in the region, according to speakers at Flight Safety Foundation’s 67th annual International Air Safety Summit (IASS) held in November in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. And like in other regions of the world, aviation stakeholders in the Middle East are working to mitigate flight operations risks through the collection, analysis and sharing of safety data.
Growth was at the top of Capt. Mohammed A. Malatani’s list of regional safety issues when the general manager, safety, at Saudi Arabian carrier Saudia, addressed IASS in his role as chairman of the Gulf Flight Safety Council (GFSC). He said rapid growth in infrastructure and airspace usage is creating “tremendous challenges” that need to be addressed and continuously monitored. Among those challenges are effective communication and coordination with the regional military forces that share the airspace with civilian operators.
Another challenge is finding a sufficient, qualified workforce. Growth and what Malatani described as higher than normal turnover have caused operators and other companies to look abroad for talent. “We need to hire more expats [expatriates] to accommodate the anticipated shortage,” he said. Hiring from abroad is a positive in that it brings more aviation experience to the region, but the turnover among expats “creates an obvious gap” when staff who have developed an understanding of the region leave and have to be replaced.
A diverse, multicultural workforce creates its own set of challenges, one of the most important of which is effective communication, Malatani said. That communication also is important across national boundaries in a region that, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) definition, encompasses 15 countries in what Malatani called a limited geographical area.
Flight Data Forum
As in other regions of the world, safety data collection and analysis, and the sharing of the resulting information, are seen as critical elements to mitigating risk in the Middle East, but this type of activity requires training and expertise that sometimes is difficult to acquire. So the GFSC has launched a regional flight data forum (FDF) to exchange safety information, increase the effectiveness of each forum member’s flight data monitoring (FDM) program, and provide training and support for analysts and others tasked with running FDM programs.
“Really what it is about is going back to the grassroots … to try and get some sort of peer support for the experts down at the bottom, to get them competent or up-skilled in areas where they may struggle,” said Dave Stobie, senior flight operations engineer at Emirates, a GFSC member.
The FDF, which held its initial meeting in February 2014, hopes to schedule each meeting over two days. Day one is for operators who want to participate in the sharing of statistics. Stobie was quick to point out that the forum, based on a long-established industry model, is not about sharing FDM events or data among airlines or with regulators. “We’re not actually sharing physical data,” he said. “What we’re doing really is sharing statistics.”
The statistics shared are derived from the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA’s) “Significant Seven,” which cover loss of control, runway overrun or excursion, controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), runway incursion and ground collision, airborne confliction, ground handling operations, and airborne and post-crash fire.5 “If there are events we monitor that would fall into one of those categories, that is the sort of thing we would put into the pool for operators to compare each other,” Stobie said.
Access to the first day’s sessions is restricted to operators, and the meetings are held under rules that allow participants to use the information received, but not to identify the speakers or their affiliations, or reveal any of the other participants. In addition, there is a set of published rules and guidelines that cover anti-competitive behavior and place additional restrictions on how information obtained from forum members may be used or disseminated.
During the first day, participants share lessons learned and exchange information on standard operating procedures (SOPs). Participants can get insight from other operators into how changes to SOPs have worked or not worked, and why. “It’s another source of intelligence for you,” Stobie said.
But much of the value of the first day comes from sharing and pooling statistics, and benchmarking among organizations. “When you start pooling the statistical data, it starts to put more context into where you are, how you’re doing, and also might highlight issues you have that you aren’t aware of,” he said, “like problems running your algorithms that could be giving you inaccurate information.”
Benchmarking and pooling statistical data allow participants to start to quantify their own safety margins, Stobie said, adding that many regulations talk about “acceptable safety,” but do not quantify it and are not very helpful. “What is acceptable safety, who decides it and how do you get there?” he said. Also, statistics examined in a vacuum can cause an operator to focus, and spend money, on the wrong thing. Benchmarking “enables you to get insight on where you can best focus your efforts when you’re trying to improve performance,” he said.
Stobie said the FDF also collects geo-referenced data from operators who want to provide it. “When you start to look at it and bore into it, you can start to see some really interesting patterns arise,” he said, such as clusters of traffic-alert and collision avoidance system alerts in particular areas.
Day two is dedicated to peer support, training, helping individual operators set up and run an effective FDM program, and providing a network for sharing ideas and techniques. At smaller operators, FDM programs, which require specific skill sets to be understood and be effective, might be run by one person who also has other duties, Stobie said. “Eventually, the data being provided by your FDM will be used to drive multimillion-dollar decisions, so you’ve got to have absolute confidence in the data that are being provided by your specialist, to know that what they are telling you is, in fact, correct.”
Another organization working on safety at the regional level in the Middle East, albeit with states more so than with operators, is ICAO’s Regional Aviation Safety Group–Middle East (RASG-MID). According to Ismaeil Al Blooshi, assistant director general of the Aviation Safety Affairs sector at the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and chairman of RASG-MID, the group’s objective is to support the establishment and operation of a performance-based safety system for the region by analyzing safety information and hazards to civil aviation at the regional level, reviewing action plans developed within the region to address identified hazards, and to facilitate the sharing of safety information and experiences among all stakeholders.
RASG–MID has been operating since 2011, and has published two Annual Safety Reports, the second in January 2014. “The objective of the RASG–MID Annual Safety Report is to gather safety information from different stakeholders and to identify the main aviation safety risks in the Middle East region in order to deploy mitigation actions for enhancing aviation safety in a coordinated manner,” according to the 2014 report’s executive summary.6
However, much of the safety information that has been gathered and shared to date is based on “reactive” information, Al Blooshi says, from accident databases maintained by ICAO, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and Boeing. “The sources are all the international organizations. Nobody actually from the region is actively feeding the information. This is our challenge here in the region. Either we don’t have the information, or we don’t have the means to share it, or we don’t have the reason for sharing it,” Al Blooshi said.
Using the available data, which are generally about accidents and serious incidents, RASG–MID has identified four focus areas as regional priorities: ground damage, runway and ground safety, loss of control–in flight and CFIT. Despite the challenges posed by a lack of data from many of the states in the region, RASG-MID has produced guidance materials intended to shed some light on the issues surrounding runway and ground safety, Al Blooshi said. “We are still in the beginning of our work, but we are keen to produce results.”
RASG-MID also is working with proactive safety information it obtains primarily from IATA’s Safety Trend Evaluation, Analysis and Data Exchange System (STEADES), which is a database of de-identified airline incident reports. Analysis of the STEADES data has identified two emerging risks for the region: call sign confusion and laser strikes. But while the data are the best available, Al Blooshi said, they do not provide a good representation of the region. He pointed out that IATA and ICAO group states into regions differently.
ICAO’s MID region comprises 15 Middle Eastern countries, whereas IATA’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region extends beyond what is traditionally viewed as the Middle East. “There is an overlap, but there is not necessarily a complete compatibility,” Al Blooshi said. “So this is one of the challenges that we have.” The same is true of the predictive data, which come from IATA’s Flight Data eXchange (FDX) database. There is a low participation rate among MENA airlines in FDX, he said.
Given the high rate of traffic growth in the Middle East, hazard identification that is limited to forensic approaches (analyzing accidents and serious incidents) is not efficient enough to improve accident rates as quickly as needed. Al Blooshi would like to see RASG-MID’s efforts refocused on incident and latent condition information gathered during normal operations. “We are working in accidents and incidents, but we’re not getting the right access to hazards. What we want is to encourage the region to work on the next tier,” he said.
Collecting and analyzing data also can be frustrating at the operator level, even for a relatively young carrier like Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which was established in 2003 and operates a mixed fleet of more than 100 Airbus and Boeing aircraft on an increasingly global route network. “As an airline that was born after the IT [information technology] revolution, Etihad is actually well-placed to take advantage of advances in technology to retrieve, store, analyze and share data in ways that were not available maybe a decade or two ago,” said Capt. Adrian Aliyuddin, head of aviation safety at the carrier.
For Aliyuddin, the frustrations came to a head in mid-2014 when he embarked on a study of the number of hard landings the carrier was experiencing. He said he “found it to be a very painful experience” to retrieve and compare data from different databases across the organization. It was easy to retrieve and analyze data from the FDM database and from the safety reporting system, Aliyuddin said, but he struggled with getting information and data from load and balance, flight planning and crewing systems.
As a result, Etihad now is working to better organize its operational and safety data by combining data from different sources in a single management information system that will be used for all queries to enable more robust analysis of the data which, in turn, will lead to more informed decision making.
“I think a comment made by an industry colleague of mine at another safety forum not long ago summed up what I was experiencing over the past summer,” Aliyuddin said. “He said, ‘We are now data rich, but analysis poor.’”
But progress is being made. Capt. Nasir Iqbal, senior safety risk specialist with the UAE GCAA, said that the safety reporting culture has been gaining ground and reaching maturity in the UAE in the four years since the state began implementing its State Safety Program (SSP). As of the end of September, implementation of the UAE’s SSP was 93 percent complete, and Iqbal said in mid-November that implementation was expected to be completed by the end of 2014.
One of the tools used in the UAE is a voluntary reporting system (VORSY), which is intended to capture hazards, incidents and errors that may not have been reported through the mandatory reporting system. VORSY started off slowly in 2012 with 20 reports, increased to 36 in 2013, and had jumped to 64 through nearly the first 10 months of 2014, Iqbal said.
Using the data collected through VORSY, safety incident reporting, accident and incident investigations and other methods, the GCAA has identified top operator and airport safety issues and combined the data with information on aircraft movements to determine impact on the industry, Iqbal said. Key areas the GCAA has addressed with risk assessments in the past few years include wake turbulence — Dubai, UAE, has unique airspace because of the mix of aircraft that operate there, Iqbal said — airprox and level bust, in-flight injuries due to turbulence, laser strike incidents and galley smoke incidents.
- Airbus. Global Market Forecast (GMF) 2013-2033.
- Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Current Market Outlook (CMO), 2013-2033.
- Airbus. GMF 2014-2033.
- Flottau, Jens. “AACO: Europe is Practicing ‘Protectionism At Its Worst.’” Aviation Week & Space Technology. (Nov. 24, 2014, p. 35).
- U.K. CAA. CAA ‘Significant Seven’ Task Force Reports, CAA Paper 2011/03, March 2011 (corr.).
- RASG-MID. MID Region Annual Safety Report, Second Edition, January 2014.