Plane Answers: Three inexpensive ways to make flying safer

The culture in aviation has always been focused around how to make flying even more safe. The FAA, NTSB and even Congress are looking into ways to improve air safety after the 49 people were killed in the Colgan Air accident in February–the only fatal accident in the U.S. so far in 2009.

I’d be willing to wager that more money goes toward ensuring the safety of the flying public than to life saving procedures or infrastructure in any other industry or activity. I’ve likely benefited from that investment, with far fewer of my colleagues lost in airplane accidents in the past ten years than in any previous decade.

But it’s easy to become hyper-focused on ways to make air travel safer without considering the opportunity costs. As a society, we have a limited amount of resources we can use to save lives. And somehow we tend to overlook the fact that, on average, 123 people are killed every day in the U.S. while driving in automobiles. That’s equivalent to an airliner crashing every day. Clearly that would be unacceptable.

But there are still a few areas of low-hanging fruit that could make air travel safer at a relatively low cost. Here are my top three:

Airway Offsetting

Today airplanes usually fly between two published points, essentially creating a ‘road’ in the sky called an airway. When these airways were designed, they were given four miles left and right of the imaginary centerline. GPS equipped airplanes occupy just a few hundred feet of that width, since they now fly very close to the center of the airway.

Air Traffic Control does an amazingly good job keeping airplanes at different altitudes to prevent opposite direction traffic from colliding.

But because of the precision of GPS equipped airliners, if two airplanes were heading in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude, a collision is relatively certain.

Since we’re all human, mistakes can be made by pilots and ATC that result in this ‘loss of separation’. Fortunately, just prior to the widespread use of GPS in airliners, another technology was developed to save us from those situations; the Traffic Collision Avoidance system.

TCAS has been a savior, likely preventing dozens of midair collisions. Had GPS been prevalent in airliners before TCAS, we’d likely have had far more midair collisions in the past fifteen years. This is an an issue I’ve been closely watching since two close friends were involved in nose-to-nose situations that were averted solely because of their TCAS.

But there could be a third level of safety that would only take a software upgrade to implement. I call it airway offsetting.

Since airways are still eight miles wide, why can’t our flight management system (FMS)-the box that contains the waypoints our GPS needs to fly the route-include a predefined offset to the right of course of, say, .5 miles? This would essentially create a two lane highway system in the sky, something done shortly after the first automobile was invented. It would also add an inexpensive third level of safety to our Air Traffic Control system.

Since greater precision is needed on an arrival and opposite direction traffic isn’t a problem between those points anyway, airplanes entering the arrival portion of the flight would lose the 1/2 mile offset. This could all be done without any input or concern from the pilots or ATC. All it would take is a software change to the on-board FMS computer of each aircraft.

And this third level of safety would have prevented the tragic mid-air collision in Brazil in 2006.

Engineered Materials Arresting System

An Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS) is a vehicle arresting bed that is installed at the end of runways to prevent aircraft overruns. It’s made up of cellular concrete blocks that start at nine inches deep and progress to as much as thirty inches. It’s a bit like an arresting hook for airliners, but the blocks are designed to slow an airplane down rapidly without doing damage to the aircraft or its passengers.

This technology is currently in use at Boston, New York and Chicago, and on a few of the runway ends at 25 other airports around the country. The FAA is aware that a number of aircraft accidents could have benefited from this relatively low-tech solution. The most recent was the only fatality in 2006; a Southwest jet that landed long and fast at the very short Midway airport that could have been prevented with EMAS.

Fortunately, the FAA appears to be committed to EMAS with plans to install four more of the concrete overruns this year and two in 2010. After that, hopefully more runway ends, especially at runways shorter than 8,000 feet, will be updated with the EMAS system.

Enhanced Class III Electronic Flight Bags

The next improvement to air safety contains at least two life-saving technologies with a single upgrade.

A Class III Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) is a device that offers tremendous situational awareness to pilots. It’s built into the map displays of the airliner, which allows it to incorporate GPS data and datalink communications to bring airliners up to the same level of technology that’s been in four-seat Cessnas for nearly a decade.

Specifically, three features of the Class III EFB will go a long way towards improving safety:

Taxi diagrams can be displayed with the aircraft’s position while maneuvering on the ground, much like an automobile GPS. During low visibility operations, this can easily save lives. In fact, the world’s worst airline accident was caused by two 747s colliding on the surface in Tenerife.

To really understand how important this feature is, take a look at this sobering video that uses actual ATC conversation with a pilot unsure of his location on the runway:

The FAA considers runway incursions to be one of the most pressing safety concerns for air travel.

The other benefit of a Class III EFB comes with real-time weather updates. As airlines add internet access to their airplanes, passengers now find themselves with more accurate and up to date weather depictions in the back of the airplane than the pilots have up front with their myopic weather radar.

Many Class III EFBs are capable of receiving satellite weather radar updates that can display the height of thunderstorms, the winds aloft, the current weather at the destination and turbulence reports that are all depicted in an easily readable format on the map display.

In an effort to keep the costs of this technology under control, perhaps the Class III EFB should be mandated only for aircraft delivered after a certain date. Boeing has already stated that the new 787, scheduled for its first flight next month, will come with a Class III EFB as standard equipment. Let’s hope the same advancements make their way into the smaller Boeing aircraft.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles