Complement : Proactive airline safety programs

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Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program

Under a Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP), a certificate holder (a company) that becomes aware that a potential violation of regulations has, or might have, occurred, immediately notifies its FAA office and discloses that fact, along with any corrective actions that have been taken to assure continuing safe operation (FAA, 2006b). The FAA then reviews the facts of the situation, and decides whether the incident was due to careless or reckless disregard for safety on the company’s part. Seldom is that the case, and so usually the FAA accepts the report and agrees to not pursue fines or certificate action against the company, provided that the company follows up with a “comprehensive fix” that addresses the underlying causes of the event.

The VDRP allows a participating aviation service provider to report a potential violation and receive some protection from prosecution. In a sense, a VDRP is a vinculum that exemplifies the partnership between production and oversight, in SMS parlance. The FAA assumes good will and honesty from the certificate holder, and the certificate holder assumes that the FAA will not punish the company. Both sides assume that they hold a critical goal in common: safe operations.

We will be discussing non-punitive just cultures in depth later in this book; the VDRP is a symbol of such a just culture.

One element that all of these programs have in common is the fact that they are all voluntary. No operator is required by regulation to participate in any of these programs. While the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) has established an international standard for the inclusion of many of these programs, and while the European Joint Aviation Authorities had required all large aircraft operators to establish one of these programs (FOQA) by January, 2005, the FAA has continued to assert that keeping these programs voluntary is the appropriate model for the U.S. The great concern the industry and its associated unions have with mandatory programs is that regulators would be empowered to unilaterally dictate data sharing mechanisms. Keeping these programs voluntary rather than mandatory has been a central goal of the industry throughout the decade of negotiations with the FAA.

Each program is clearly distinct, and has its own area of focus: for AQP, training; for ATOS, national oversight of the airline system; for ASAP, tapping into the observations and wisdom of the workforce; for FOQA, using exquisitely detailed data to paint an objective picture of routine operations; and for IEP, the measurement of management systems. These distinctions allow the various proactive safety programs to be used in concert, each revealing a particular aspect of the reality of line operations. But while these areas are separate in their specializations, the shared concept is what defines them as proactive: each uses its own dataset and methodology to draw inferences about the universe it is observing, and hoping to control.

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