At the beginning of every year, I am amazed by how many news stories are written about top airline safety rankings and how fast those stories spread.
I was once told by a former boss “what gets measured gets attention,” as he was explaining the need to get improved levels of performance from our work group. You can’t just do the job and expect things in a large organization to get better. Metrics are necessary to help shape what you want out of an organization, whether it’s speed, efficiency or safety. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the same is true today. Yet we have learned over the years that not every metric is useful, and we now know a lot about how to choose metrics that make sense.
Last year, I posted an article on LinkedIn about a reaction to one of these safety ranking stories, and it explained why you can safely ignore airline safety rankings. I often try to appeal to people’s math skills when talking about this, but while that works well for safety experts, I really would like to reach those who find the rankings so tantalizing.
There is a reason that it’s hard to tell the difference between the top airlines on safety. It’s because they all are really, really safe. The aviation industry has learned many lessons and applied what has been learned to the equipment, the training, the interfaces between pilots and controllers, the airport arrangements and much more. Now the industry is focused on using risk data to improve even further. The risk data come in many forms, refined over years of measuring what makes sense to measure; it is focused on errors, close calls and mundane evidence of system weakness. Thanks to implementation of safety management systems, industry professionals are working even harder in using these data to avoid close calls behind the scenes and sometimes working with regulators on what else needs to improve.
You can bet most of the airlines in these rankings are doing good things, probably because they are so frequently thinking about what could be the next accident that happens to them. They rely on risk data to fix problems before they ever show up in an audit or in an incident or accident. The public sources driving these rankings will never show the real-time risks being examined at each airline, where there are constant efforts to apply measurements and to improve what is getting measured.
If the airline industry wasn’t providing the safest form of transportation around, maybe there would be an argument for separating the best from the rest. But with such stellar safety records, what could these lists possibly do to help us improve the industry? Let’s think about that for a while this year.
Mark Millam is vice president, technical, at Flight Safety Foundation.