The aviation industry must guard against becoming complacent about safety despite the number of fatal accidents in commercial aviation decreasing over the last decade, warn industry experts.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s annual safety conference in Helsinki heard that while safety is widely established as the top priority for the aviation industry, commercial pressures can present a challenge to that focus.
Compromises on safety however run the risk of losing the confidence of the general public, said Pekka Henttu, Director General of Civil Aviation at the Finnish aviation agency Traficom, co-host of the two-day event.
“For the first time actually in this conference we have discussed commercial pressures and they are a fact. We have to admit that they are present,” Henttu said. “Aviation has to find a good balance between safety, security, environmental sustainability and the business side.”
Speakers warned repeatedly that strong growth in the aviation industry in coming years meant that more had to be done if the safety record were to be maintained. The consequences of fatal accidents for public trust were very clear, as demonstrated following the tragic accidents sustained by the Boeing 737 MAX.
Topi Manner, CEO of Finnair said: “Aviation is a growth industry. If aircraft and flight numbers double in the next decade, maintaining the current fatal accident rate would mean significant absolute increase in fatalities. That is not acceptable. We must continue to improve safety.”
“People want to fly at competitive prices and they want to fly safely,” said Joachim Luecking, who heads aviation safety at the transport directorate of the European Commission. Environmental issues were also extremely important, Luecking added: “The aviation industry should not underestimate the pressure coming from that side.”
EASA’s executive director Patrick Ky pointed to technological development as a way to increase future safety, citing various old technologies still in use in aviation, for example the continued use of radio frequencies for communication with air traffic controllers.
“The future is certainly that we as a community need to decide to invest into technologies which increase the level of safety,” he said. This could include using automation to cover non-critical operations to allow a pilot or other crew members to focus on more critical tasks.
A wide-ranging discussion on digitalisation addressed the pros and cons of autonomy – aircraft flying without a pilot – with the conclusion that this was a long way away for commercial flights, though probably much more immediate for urban air taxis. It also tackled the need for data sharing, as widely as possible, so as to allow for a predictive and preventive approach to safety and progress on environmental protection. Artificial intelligence would be required to process that information which could lead, for example, to reductions in CO2 emissions through better fuel planning.
Presentations and pictures from the conference are available under event proceedings of the conference on the EASA website.