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Airline safety never compromised by supply chain disruption

When more than 550 safety professionals from around 100 airlines gathered in Vietnam last month for the International Air Transport Association’s inaugural World Safety and Operations Conference (WSOC), one challenge was uppermost in their minds: making the world’s safest form of transport safer? Associate editor and chief correspondent, Tom Ballantyne, reports from Hanoi.

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October 1st 2023

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Frustrating gaps in the aviation supply chain and manpower shortages are exerting relentless pressure on airlines as the industry recovers from the pandemic of 2020 to early 2023. Read More » Critically, no airline is rushing back capacity by flouting safety rules. International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general, Willie Walsh, told delegates at the association’s first safety and operations conference.

“There always is pressure on airlines, but safety is never compromised. I don’t think this [time] is any different,” Walsh said in his speech to conference delegates last month.

It is clear from the operational component of airlines in recent months that on-time performance is not as good as would be liked because of supply chain issues, but the industry remains very much focused on safety, he said.

“I certainly see no evidence of that being the case. In fact, because we have data, we monitor trends in the industry. We are not seeing any evidence of a change in behavior,” Walsh said.

WSOC covered all aspects of aviation safety from the cockpit and cabin to ground operations, aircraft recovery after incidents and safety culture, but leadership was high on the agenda. “Leadership in Action: Driving Safer and More Efficient Operations was the theme of the Vietnam Airlines sponsored gathering.

The IATA Safety Leadership Charter was unveiled when 20 airlines signed the charter at a ceremony at the Hanoi gathering. Asia-Pacific airline signatories to it were All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Cathay Pacific, EVA Airways, Garuda Indonesia, Hainan Airlines, Qantas Group, Vietnam Airlines and Xiamen Airlines.

The Safety Leadership Charter aims to strengthen organizational safety culture through a commitment to eight key safety leadership guiding principles. Developed in consultation with IATA members and the wider aviation community, it will support industry executives in evolving a positive safety culture in their organizations.

“Leadership matters. It is the strongest factor affecting safety behavior. By signing up to the IATA Safety Leadership Charter, these industry leaders are demonstrating their commitment to the criticality of safety culture within their own airlines and the need to continuously build on the work that has gone before,” Walsh said.

“The Safety Leadership Charter is a toolbox to support industry leaders and ensure every employee, within their circle of influence, knows the role to play in safety,” IATA’s Global Director, Safety, Mark Searle, said. “Whatever the job, safety must be in the DNA of everybody.”

IATA’s Senior Vice President Operations, Safety and Security, Nick Careen, said “commercial aviation has benefited from more than 100 years of safety advances that inspire the industry to raise the bar ever higher. The commitment and drive by aviation’s leaders for continuous improvement in safety is a longstanding pillar of commercial aviation that has made flying the safest form of long-distance travel. Signing this charter honors the achievements that should give everyone the highest confidence when flying and sets a powerful and timely reminder we can never be complacent on safety.”

Aviation is a major contributor to Vietnam’s economy. Based on 2019 (pre-pandemic) data, aviation grew the country’s GDP by US$11.7 billion as a result of foreign tourists arriving by air into the country. The income was 5.5% of GDP. In total, 2.5 million jobs, including tourism related employment, were supported by aviation according to Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders.
Its importance was underscored by speakers at the opening of the conference, including Tran Luu Quang, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nguyen Van Thang, Vietnam Ministry of Transport, and Dang Ngoc Hoa, Chairman of Vietnam Airlines.

In 2022, there were five fatal accidents involving loss of life to all onboard out of more than 32 million flights, Careen said. The 2022 fatality risk of 0.11 per million flights means, on average, a person would need to take a flight every day for 25,214 years to experience a 100% fatal accident.

“The industry knows every fatality is a tragedy. Our common goal is for each flight to take off and land safely. We will not be satisfied with our current level of achievement as the safest form of long distance transport the world has known until this vision has been delivered.”

“Safety is the responsibility of everyone at an airline. Indeed everybody in the industry, but the culture is set from the top,” Walsh said.

“Ensuring we have the right culture where people can be open about safety issues and feel free to discuss them, can share their concerns, can share their experience is very important to progress the high levels of industry safety.

“As a former pilot and a former CEO, I understand how important it is that airline leaders and leaders throughout the industry be focused and open about the safety culture that we have.”

It is a view shared by Vietnam Airlines (VNA) president and chief executive, Le Hong Ha. Speaking at a CEO panel at the conference, he said: “I would like to add the development of safety culture also is the corporate culture. It is why the role of leadership is very important to develop trust and value so everyone will act to ensure safety. We provide an open environment so staff can share ideas about safety.”

On the same panel, Philippine Airlines president and chief operating officer, Captain Stanley Ng, said supply chain disruptions, particularly the availability of spare parts, was an ongoing issue in maintaining high levels of operational air safety.

He called for additional manufacturing facilities to address shortfalls in component supply to facilitate the safe growth of aviation. VNA’s Le Hong Ha added: “There has to be collaboration between airlines, suppliers and service providers.”

“From an industry point of view, the problem became most pronounced in 2022 as the post-pandemic recovery gathered pace. Unfortunately, the problem is not getting any better,” Walsh said.

“The situation has become even worse for airlines as we go through the rest of this year and into 2024. What we see at the moment is continuing strong demand for travel but supply is being constrained as a result of the supply chain problems.

“There is a need for manufacturers to recognize the scale of the problem, admit openly the challenges they face and be more realistic. It is causing a lot of frustration within the industry. It has been a consistent theme with every airline CEO.”

It became clear during the conference that data sharing is crucial to improving safety. Le Hong Ha said part of the solution is good data, which allows airlines to understand what might need replacing and when.

“This is part of a bigger transformation of the business. Airlines are improving their data collection and analyses, enabling better decision-making and organizational structures and more automation,” he said.

“This has enormous safety implications. Automation combined with artificial intelligence, for example, can provide pilots with better situational awareness and allow them to focus on necessary actions.”

IATA’s Careen highlighted the industry’s resilience during COVID and believes existing hurdles to a full recovery will be overcome. Flexibility and better use of data will be vital to success. The differing responses to the pandemic globally also emphasized the necessity for even greater collaboration, he said.

“We develop playbooks, but they sit on the shelf gathering dust,” he said. He stressed the need for more active industry planning so crises never again have the catastrophic effect of COVID-19 and the importance of sharing safety data in a secure and confidential manner to keep raising the safety bar.

WSOC, held over three days, explored safety and operational efficiency across four session tracks: Safety, Cabin Operations, Flight Operations and Emergency Response Planning and Aircraft Recovery. The Operations track addressed topics such as safely integrating new entrants and procedures, potential opportunities and boundaries of AI (Artificial Intelligence), digital transformation of flight and technical operations and performance-based training.

Cabin Operations discussions included unruly passengers; addressing risks associated with lithium batteries; cabin crew mental health and reducing cabin crew injuries. Case studies of accidents and incidents were presented. The Emergency Response Planning and Aircraft Recovery track examined aircraft recovery; effective communications, family briefings and assistance and risk and insurance management.

Another issue for delegates was the critical role played by state accident investigation reports in improving safety. Notably, only 96 of the 214 accident investigations conducted between 2018 and 2022 conformed with the Convention of International Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention).

Safety Leadership Guiding Principles
• Leading the obligation to safety with actions as well as words.
• Fostering safety awareness among employees, the leadership team and the board.
• Creating an atmosphere of trust, where all employees feel responsible for safety and are encouraged and expected to report safety-related information.
• Guiding the integration of safety into business strategies, processes and performance measures and creating the internal capacity to manage and achieve organizational safety goals.
• Regularly assessing and improving organizational safety culture.


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