Sun, Dec 21, 2008 - Page 9 News List

JAL focusing on black boxes in flight safety drive

By Christine Negroni  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The black box, more than any other piece of aircraft equipment, is a potent symbol of disaster. But last month, in a sharp departure from industry practice, Japan Airlines (JAL) began showing an in-flight video focusing its passengers’ attention on that equipment.

For most of their history, the bright orange flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder — referred to inaccurately as black boxes — have served one function: recording the last information from a doomed flight. Recent technology, though, has allowed airlines to make flight data — previously retrievable only after a crash — more easily accessible. As a result, hundreds of details on routine flights can be collected. Data analysis and a companion program that encourages pilots to report their own errors are based on the idea that mistakes are lessons waiting to be learned.

But getting pilots to confess mistakes has proved too difficult for two large US carriers. So it is all the more notable that not only has Japan Airlines been successful with both programs, it is using in-flight videos to make passengers aware of its shortcomings.

“No one in the world is doing this,” says Michael Poole, managing partner of CAE Flightscape, whose Quebec, Canada-based company provides the technology to JAL and other airlines.

“Here’s an excellent way to communicate they are serious about safety,” he said.

In the three-minute video, passengers learn what kinds of errors the airline is looking for and what happens if they are found. They see pilots working in the cockpit and hear terms like “anomalies” and “potential hazards.”

“Through this program we want to be as open as we can and show our customers how we are improving safety in our everyday business activities,” said Akeo Misumi, director of JAL’s flight data monitoring office.

Even when potential hazards are not spotted, the information can be beneficial. Poole said subtle irregularities in piloting or maintenance could, for example, burn more fuel.

“I don’t care what business you’re in, if you have a device measuring the performance of your business, you should look at the data proactively to run a better business,” he said.

In the US, more than 70 airlines have signed agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to participate in the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). The pilots receive immunity from disciplinary action if they report their mistakes. But some airlines have dropped out of the program, which Robert Sturgell, the acting administrator of the FAA, has called “disheartening.”

American Airlines, withdrew six weeks ago, joining Delta Air Lines and Comair, a regional carrier owned by Delta.

Disagreements between the union and management prompted American’s decision. At issue is whether pilots can be punished if their errors would have been detected outside of ASAP.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines, blamed the pilots’ union.

“This is something we feel is in the best interests of our pilots and we want it back,” he said.

But Scott Shankland, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said, “ASAP at American is a victim of the poor relationship between pilots and management.”

In light of the difficulties that airlines in the US are having, JAL stands out, said Kevin Humphreys, director of safety regulation for the Irish Aviation Authority.

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