The aviation industry is renowned for its dedication to safe operations. The sector’s impressive track record has been built up over many decades and is the result of an inbuilt conservative approach to operations and a safety culture which is providing a lesson to other industries.

Whilst there will always be incidents which gain high media attention, there is no doubt that commercial air transport is the safest form of travel today. However, it is incumbent on the industry to continue improving its record, particularly in areas of the world where a safety culture is not as developed.

The industry is joining forces with governments to do just that in Africa, where airports, airlines, air navigation service providers, pilots unions, manufacturers and local authorities are working together on the Africa Strategic Improvement Action Plan to improve safety on the continent.

Globally, there were 29.5 million commercial western-built jet flights in 2013 and six hull-loss accidents. This equates to a hull-loss rate of 0.41 per million flights, or one hull loss for every 2.4 million flights. This was a step back from 2012, which saw the lowest accident rate in aviation history. However, despite the number of accidents increasing slightly from the year before, the overall trend is downward. And accidents do not always mean fatalities – in 2013, there were 212 fatalities on western-built aircraft. When looking at all aircraft types, there were 16 fatal accidents in 2013.

Lessons from aviation

The way that aviation approaches even routine functions is being increasingly used by other sectors to improve their safety performance. Task checklists, common for pilots to use in the flight deck for years, are now being applied to the medical profession and in high-risk jobs like nuclear power stations.

But the simple checklist is not the only area where industries can learn from air transport. The development of a robust and open safety culture is where real progress has been made.

A system called crew resource management promotes a culture of open communications and teamwork by all parts of the operation. Where problems arise, or even have the potential to arise, any member of the crew (in the aircraft or on the ground) should feel comfortable with speaking up and raising the issue. And some air navigation service providers (ANSPs) advocate a system known as ‘just culture’ whereby air traffic controllers are encouraged to report essential safety-related information without fear of punishment except in cases of gross negligence or wilful violations. Both systems prioritise working as a team and the open exchange of information. They allow the organisations to learn and improve operational procedures.

The industry also goes to great lengths to learn from faults that have caused accidents in the past, to ensure that these do not occur again. That is why the process to investigate aircraft incidents is a coordinated effort by all appropriate parties.

These methods have proved to be an invaluable tool for the evolution of aviation safety and are being applied to other sectors, such as heathcare and firefighting, where complex systems and hierarchies have the potential to create risks.