A Guide to Airport Safety

Airport safety is now more complex, as commercial, private aviation and hobbyist drones and planes take to the air. Take the four-day shutdown of London Gatwick in 2018, or when drones in California grounded helicopters fighting the fires in October 2019 with illegal flights.

Addressing these new challenges often entails new, expensive technology systems, training and collaboration between air traffic management, police and the military to establish a viable system that avoids disruptions and safeguards general safety.

As technology transforms the way we live, work and travel, airport safety is critical to ensure airports and the aircraft and people passing through them are as safe as possible. 

What is Airport Safety?

Airport safety encompasses several areas, including aircraft firefighting and rescue, air shows, dealing with foreign objects or debris, airport runways, runway incursions, overall systems, signs and minimizing wildlife hazards.

Often stemming from issues brought on by scarce resources, aviation safety contains some economic imperative, while aviation managers must ensure the safety of their employees even against that budget constraint. 

Safety vs. Security

Airport safety and airport security are two distinct topics, though in many instances, improving security also means safety. Aviation safety includes any steps or measures taken to minimize accidental, unintentional threats, whereas aviation security protects airport patrons and employees from unintentional, malicious threats.

Examples of security threats include bombings, hijacking, shootings or direct aircraft attacks. In recent years, security programs in the U.S. have increased. Aviation security programs include:

  • The Air Marshal Program
  • The Federal Flight Desk Officer program
  • Secure Flight
  • Baggage screening
  • Technology and passenger screening
  • Increased intelligence

Airport Safety Issues

The National Business Aviation Association groups safety into two key components: Top Safety Issues and Foundations for Safety, which are practices and behaviors that form a foundation to support safety, including risk management, ensuring fitness for duty, safety leadership and technical excellence. These core skills ensure aviation professionals are best equipped to mitigate the safety issues airports must contend with. Some top safety issues are:

  • Ground Handling Collisions: Although these collisions are seldom fatal, collisions between ground operations aircraft, vehicles, fixtures or buildings often come with high costs to repair value and remove damaged vehicles from use during repairs. Advocating for heightened vigilance can help minimize these issues.
  • Procedural Non-Compliance: Aviation professionals have a bevy of regulations to adhere to, including federal, state, local and international regulations, individual company policies, and equipment manufacturer procedures. Despite the heavy regulation, non-compliance is often a significant contributing factor in accidents and incidents, according to the NBAA.
  • Runway Excursions: The most common type of accident, runway excursions rack up an estimated $900 million in injury and damage costs across the industry, according to the NBAA. About a third of business aviation accidents are runway excursions, although this is a generally avoidable issue.
  • Single-Pilot Accident Rate: Data shows accidents occur at higher rates when aircraft are operated by a single pilot compared to those with a dual-pilot crew. Accidents with a single-pilot crew are 30% more likely, given lone pilots have sole responsibility to oversee all risk mitigation processes, and can simply be more susceptible to increased errors and risks when procedures become bogged down in tasks. Fatigue can also spur fitness-for-duty concerns.
  • Loss of control inflight (LOC_I) accidents cause the highest number of fatalities in aviation compared to any other accidents. 
  • Distraction: In the flurry to stay on schedule and ensure compliance, personnel may struggle with too many tasks to complete and not enough time, resources or tools to properly assess risks, manage threats, and remain focused. This type of human error and other human factors in aviation can be mitigated by helping to address distractions and manage pressure.
  • Weather-related incidents: Issues like icy sidewalks and runways, poor visibility, and systems performances in varying temperatures all pose weather-related safety risks. 
  • Inconsistency between airports: Variation in signage, runway centerlines and lighting systems are examples of a gap in global policy that can create inefficiency or confusion. For example, missing airport-specific information can make pilots more susceptible to runway incursions.

Airport Safety Regulation & Standards

Aviation is heavily regulated by local agencies, customs and border protection regulations, and national agencies. National agencies that regulate safety include:

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Unfortunately, demands and expectations from these many agencies aren’t always in lockstep, and airport professionals must navigate competing demands.

The FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) establish rules for the industry; however, the ICAO aims to develop global standards, which it must enforce through establishing procedures and applying other techniques to encourage compliance. For instance, through the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), the ICAO establishes a foundation for global aviation safety that aims to support managing safety risks.

There are also two major policies in aviation:

  1. The Global Aviation Safety Plan (GASP), which establishes a plan for continuous improvement by developing aviation safety management components, beginning with a core system and expanding to become increasingly predictive.
  2. The Global Air Navigation Plan (GANP), which connects continuous safety improvement with modernizing navigation, boosting efficiency and eliminating emissions in the process.

Aviation Safety Reporting Systems

Reporting supports better safety by cultivating greater awareness within the airport. Overall, there are two types of reporting systems:

  1. Mandatory Reporting Systems: When major safety events occur, such as an in-flight engine failure or a crew member is suddenly too sick to perform her duties, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) mandates these types of major safety threats to be reported.
  2. Voluntary Reporting Systems: While these are not events that require reporting, establishing a secondary system of voluntary reporting for front-line personnel to highlight risks or hazards that may not otherwise be known can support better preparedness and safety. Allowing employees to submit these reports in a confidential, anonymous manner can also support a voluntary system.

Safety Management Systems

Although there are many causes of airport safety risks, airport leadership can employ a safety management system (SMS) to adopt a broader, more strategic view in addition to assessing a single system. An SMS allows for airport leadership to look at multiple systems and establish a holistic and proactive approach to address them through policy, process, procedures, and practices that improve safety across the airport.

An SMS should include four components:

  1. Safety policy to establish a commitment to safety and outline methods, processes, and structures in pursuit of safety goals
  2. Safety assurance to assess how strategies are working and isolate new risks
  3. Safety risk management to assess the need for new or adjusted controls considering the evaluation of potential risk.
  4. Safety promotion to support training, communication and any other actions necessary to cultivate an overall environment of safety.

One key facet of an SMS is the ability to collect safety data, which can then drive more effective efforts in the future. The FAA collects this data and champions voluntary safety reporting to help better identify risks in the future and decrease accidents, violations and overall risks.

As air transportation continues to grow, aviation safety will become increasingly vital, and safety management systems that can effectively support airports in detecting and addressing safety issues will be essential.

Interested in learning more aviation industry topics? Aviation Safety is just one course in Florida Tech’s 100% online BA in Aviation Management program.

Related Reading:

What Are the Different Types of Airports?

Top Challenges in Aviation Today

How to Break Into the Aviation Industry

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