Airplane contrail against clear blue sky

Pioneering Partnership Celebrates 15 Years of Advancing Aviation Safety  

By Marlis McCollum

A collaborative safety analysis and data sharing initiative has transformed aviation safety over the last 15 years. MITRE was there from the start.

When travelers across America take to the skies, they fly through the safest airspace system in the world. That impressive record is due in large part to a little-known initiative working behind the scenes to root out safety issues before they manifest in accidents or serious incidents.

The initiative is Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS), a government-industry collaboration enabling collective action to dramatically improve aviation safety in the United States over the last decade and a half.

A Seismic Shift in Aviation Safety Advancement

Fifteen years ago, MITRE helped launch ASIAS. We’ve served as the analytic arm of the effort throughout its existence.

“ASIAS introduced a new paradigm in aviation safety research,” says MITRE’s Edward Walsh, ASIAS program manager. The initiative built upon the success of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), a government-aviation industry partnership founded in 1997.

“In the first 10 years of its existence, CAST reduced the fatality risk for commercial aviation in the United States by 83 percent,” Walsh says. Its method? In-depth studies to identify causes of systemic risks and develop voluntary safety enhancements.

“As accidents became less frequent, there was a realization among the government and industry partners that a new approach was needed to take safety to the next level,” he explains.

What would be needed to detect latent safety issues in the system was data—lots of it—from both government and the aviation industry. From that concept, ASIAS was born. Growth and impact have been the hallmarks of the program ever since.

“When ASIAS was chartered in October 2007, four airlines initially agreed to share their data,” Walsh notes. “Today, 46 airlines—covering over 99 percent of U.S. airline operations—provide their data for use in ASIAS safety analyses.”

MITRE analysts fuse the airlines’ data with data from a variety of other government and public sources—such as radar tracks, weather data, and air traffic procedures—to obtain a more comprehensive view of the causes of any safety issues they detect.

Over the years, their analyses have identified a variety of potential risks and spurred both government and industry action to mitigate them.

By finding potential safety issues early—and correcting them—we enable the aviation community to continually enhance the safety of the National Airspace System.

Edward Walsh, ASIAS program manager

ASIAS Safety Studies Prompt Government and Industry Action

For instance, one ASIAS study focused on the precursors to loss of situational awareness, a key contributor to commercial airplane accidents worldwide. Another explored the factors behind flap misconfigurations on takeoff, an error that increases the risk of accidents on takeoff. Yet another study identified factors leading to unintended deviations from assigned arrival or departure procedures. Such deviations can increase the risk of a midair collision.

One study revealed that onboard systems were issuing what pilots perceived as incorrect or overly conservative alerts about potential collisions with mountainous and hilly terrain. Uncorrected, issues such as these could desensitize pilots to alerts of actual collision danger. To fully characterize the issue, ASIAS pioneered an approach that fused multiple data sources and identified underlying factors that prompted alerts when aircraft were not at risk.

In each of these cases, ASIAS worked collaboratively with safety teams like CAST to develop voluntary safety enhancement strategies to address the identified issues. These ranged from implementing new airspace procedures to redesigning avionics and augmenting flight crew training.

“By finding potential safety issues early—and correcting them from all fronts—we're enabling the aviation community to continually enhance the safety of the National Airspace System for all users,” Walsh says.

Expanding ASIAS to Other Aviation Domains

Over the last 10 years, ASIAS has sought to translate its success in improving commercial aviation safety to the general aviation (GA) community. GA encompasses everything from business jets to small, one- or two-engine privately owned aircraft.

“The need for general aviation safety improvements is a recognized priority in the ASIAS program and industry as a whole,” says Scott Williams, a MITRE group leader for aviation information sharing and strategic outreach efforts. To address that need, in 2013 MITRE launched an effort to increase GA participation in ASIAS.

“We now have over 165 GA partners, including business aviation operators, flight training universities, aircraft manufacturers, and associations. Their data will help us support GA safety advancements.”

And since 2020, ASIAS has expanded to include the helicopter, or rotorcraft, community as well.

“There has been a lot of interest from the rotorcraft community to leverage the power of ASIAS to improve rotorcraft safety,” says Eugene Mangortey, Ph.D., task lead for ASIAS rotorcraft analytic capabilities. “In fact, two of ASIAS’s most recent studies have focused on identifying and analyzing the causal factors of the leading causes of helicopter accidents.”

Evolving with the Changing National Airspace System

“Across the commercial, GA, and rotorcraft communities, we have 250 ASIAS partners in all,” Walsh says. In the future, further expansion is planned.

“The airspace is growing more complicated as new types of vehicles are coming on the scene,” says Kristin Heckman, D.Sc., manager of MITRE’s hazard identification department.

“In the future we’ll see drones used for large-scale package delivery in urban areas, air taxis that lift off vertically and fly airport passengers to their hotels, and commercial space vehicles used for both tourism and cargo transport. Data from all of these new entrants will ultimately be needed to ensure we maintain, and ideally improve, the current safety margins of the National Airspace System.”

In the meantime, other changes to the ASIAS program are underway. As the architecture and procedures for secure data collection and analysis have matured, the FAA plans to modernize and migrate the system to enable predictive safety analysis. MITRE will partner with the FAA to ensure success in these efforts.

“We take a lot of pride in the work that we’ve done and the impact ASIAS has had in the past 15 years,” Walsh says. “As our new role in the program takes shape, we remain committed to research and development that advances the science of safety and to ensuring ASIAS’s long-term success as it evolves to meet the changing needs of our airspace system.”

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