Greater Access to Data Promotes Early Hazard Detection for Safer Skies

January 2014
Topics: Aviation Industry, Air Traffic Management, Database Management
A new Safety Data Portal enables air traffic control facilities to identify and respond to risks before safety incidents occur. The FAA and its partners enlisted MITRE's help to create this tool, which is showing immediate results.
Los Angeles International Airport.

To take full advantage of air traffic control facilities' expertise in correcting and mitigating safety risks, the Federal Aviation Administration sought a way to provide these facilities with enhanced data and analytical tools. These tools are already helping the facilities identify hazards and respond proactively.

The FAA's Safety Management System uses a data-driven approach to identify and mitigate safety risks before incidents occur. This culture is embraced across the National Airspace System (NAS), especially at local air traffic control facilities, where aviation professionals can use their local expertise to correct and mitigate risk quickly and efficiently. However, facility access to safety data and advanced analytical tools for assessing that data has historically been sparse.

As a result, in 2010 the FAA partnered with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to launch Partnership for Safety. This initiative works to provide facilities across the country with information and tools to enable the type of proactive corrections at the heart of the FAA's Safety Management System. A key component of this partnership was the creation of local safety councils—teams of controllers and managers at each ATC facility who would track, identify, and resolve safety issues.

The FAA and NATCA then enlisted MITRE's help to develop measures of safety that could be computed for each facility on a regular basis and delivered securely to them for analysis and action. The result: the Safety Data Portal. The portal pulls data from multiple automated tools and reporting systems, integrates it to provide a comprehensive picture of safety risks and their possible causes, and offers this data and a set of analytic capabilities to local facilities.

"While the FAA previously analyzed numerous databases for NAS-wide safety issues and trends, this is the first time these disparate databases have been brought together to enable a more integrated analysis," says Chris Devlin, Safety and Training portfolio manager in MITRE's Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, the FFRDC we operate for the FAA. "It's also the first time this information has been analyzed at the facility level and made available to frontline personnel.”

"MITRE has done an excellent job of taking a complex idea requiring the merging of multiple data sources and turning it into an easy-to-use functional safety tool," adds NATCA National Safety Committee chairman Steve Hansen. "This is an important step forward that provides another layer of safety to the NAS."

Access to Safety Data Shows Immediate Results

The portal allows local safety councils to view their own safety metrics, compare them to those of other facilities, and track the effectiveness of their mitigation strategies. It also allows the councils to quickly identify and mitigate hazards that may not have come to light until a more serious incident occurred.

In January 2013, the FAA began implementing the Safety Data Portal across the country. Facilities immediately reported positive results. In March, for example, the local safety council at the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility used the extensive data provided through the portal to determine that planes were occasionally overshooting their final approach courses—and why. The council quickly alerted controllers about the issue, and they began implementing the recommended fixes. The correction reduced the average overshoot distance by 40 percent.

Atlanta is just one of more than 50 facilities already using the Safety Data Portal. By the end of 2014, the FAA hopes to have the portal operational at more than 300 of the nation’s air traffic control facilities. The promise of this new capability is safer skies for all users of the nation’s airspace.

—by Marlis McCollum

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