A Guide to FDM/FOQA
Also referred to as Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA), Operational Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) is the exploitation of flight data to enhance flight safety.
Despite having an enviable safety record, the aviation industry is under constant pressure to drive down accident rates. Air accidents are headline news - from purely a commercial perspective, accidents damage consumer confidence and inhibit the growth of the industry. As an integral part of an airline's Safety Management System (SMS), analysis of flight data allows safety managers to identify trends and fully investigate the circumstances behind minor incidents so that operational procedures and training can be improved, along with raising awareness of safety issues within the company.
Data from an aircraft is first analysed to identify any exceedances - that is to say any events where the flight manual limitations or guidelines were breached. This is a specialist task undertaken by flight data analysts using sophisticated software tools. Once an event has been identified, an engineer will review the data to confirm its validity, after which the flight safety officer further investigates the circumstances behind the event. Depending on the arrangements within the company, the pilot in command/flying the aircraft at the time of the event will be consulted by the flight safety officer or a union representative. This may result in a formal Air Safety Report (ASR) being raised, or simply an enhancement of the FDM event report. Either way, the involvement of the pilot greatly improves the value of the report.
A just or "no blame" reporting culture is essential if a complete picture of the causal factors behind an event is to be identified. Where the national legal system is such that pilots may be liable to prosecution if events are investigated openly, or the company safety culture is not fully developed, then the anonymity of the crew can be ensured by "de-identifying" the data and through the close involvement of pilot unions or associations in the FDM process. The reluctance of pilots within an airline to contribute to the FDM process is not an indication of any lack of professionalism on their part, but an indication of fear of punishment. Resolution of this fear lies in the hands of the leadership of the company. It is important to realise that the vast majority of accidents within an organisation are the result of a combination of systemic or organisational failures and not the fault of an individual.
Each individual event needs to be investigated and appropriate management decisions made by the airline. Event data may also be pooled with other airlines so wider and longer-term trends can be identified and corrective action taken. Importantly, analysts can also analyse the collected data from normal operations to identify trends before there is a significant event or incident. Both approaches to analysis work together to give the safety officer a greater insight into what is happening within the company. Clearly, the more detailed and imaginative the analysis, the greater the value of the Flight Data Monitoring programme to the company, but equally the greater the resources required for the task.
In the market for an FDM/FOQA solution that best fits your operation? Here is a simple checklist to help you in your search.
In my opinion FDM properly and sensitively managed is an enhancement of flight safety on a par with EGPWS/TAWS. The management and staff at FDS have been helpful and constructive and I commend their service.
Flight Safety Officer
Air Contractors, Ireland