Aviation Safety:

Efforts to Implement Flight Operational Quality Assurance Programs

RCED-98-10: Published: Dec 2, 1997. Publicly Released: Dec 31, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) how the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) and U.S. airlines' Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs will enhance aviation safety; (2) the costs and benefits of such programs; and (3) the factors that could impede their full implementation and actions that could be taken to overcome any impediments.

GAO noted that: (1) the early experience of domestic airlines with established FOQA programs, as well as the testimony of foreign airlines with extensive experience in this area, attests to the potential of such programs to enhance aviation safety by identifying possible safety problems that could lead to accidents; (2) airlines have used FOQA programs to identify potential problems that were previously unknown or only suspected; (3) where potential problems where already known, airlines have used these programs to confirm and quantify the extent of the problems; (4) on the basis of analyses of flight data, airlines have taken actions to correct problems and enhance aviation safety; (5) costs associated with implementing a FOQA program depend on a large number of factors, including the technology used to capture flight data, the number and types of aircraft to be equipped with this technology, and personnel costs; (6) although the program is primarily viewed as a safety program, U.S. and foreign airlines have reported financial benefits as well; (7) with additional data on aircraft systems and engine conditions, airlines are better able to achieve optimum fuel consumption and avoid unneeded engine maintenance; (8) enhanced safety should result in lower costs over time as a result of accidents avoided and lower insurance premiums; (9) FAA's estimates suggest a net savings from 50 aircraft of $892,000 per year; (10) the primary factor impeding the implementation of FOQA programs among the major domestic carriers is the resolution of data protection issues; (11) airline managers and pilots raise three significant data protection concerns: (a) use of data for enforcement and disciplinary purposes; (b) disclosure to the media and the public under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act; and (c) disclosure through the civil litigation discovery process; (12) FAA has taken a number of actions that may resolve these issues, although it is not clear whether the aviation community will be satisfied with FAA's actions; (13) FAA has begun work on a rulemaking procedure to establish what protections from enforcement actions, if any, will apply to information submitted to FAA under a FOQA program; (14) Congress enacted legislation, and FAA has begun work on a rulemaking procedure, that would prohibit the Administrator from disclosing voluntarily submitted safety information under certain circumstances; and (15) airlines seek to protect voluntarily collected safety information from disclosure in civil litigation on a case-by-case basis.

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