Evolving Technology and The Future of Aviation Safety

The Importance of Strategic Partnerships

By Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), Chair, ALPA Aviation Safety Group

It’s no secret that our operating environment and the work we do as airline pilots will undergo substantial changes over the next several decades. One only needs to look back to Kitty Hawk and the amazing advances in aviation that have occurred since that first flight 120 years ago to get a sense of what might be possible in the years to come. Rapidly evolving technologies promise to continue reshaping aviation. These technologies are introducing innovations that will enhance safety and efficiency to meet the ever-increasing demand for air travel in our shared airspace. As our industry evolves, aviation safety advocates, regulators, manufacturers, and airlines will adjust to these new conditions, all the while working to maintain the highest standards of safety. Adaptation, collaboration, and innovation will be essential in navigating these challenges effectively.

Over the years, NASA has been a leader in safety innovations in aviation. From weather forecasting to human factors and enhanced cockpit technologies, NASA has long pioneered research initiatives that have added to our knowledge and advanced the cause of aviation safety. In the 1970s, the agency introduced the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), a confidential, voluntary reporting system managed by NASA that allows pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, mechanics, and other aviation personnel to report safety-related incidents and concerns without fear of punitive action. ASRS laid the groundwork for the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), another form of voluntary, nonpunitive reporting that’s typically managed by individual airlines. Both ASRS and ASAP collect critical contextual data from pilots that can be used to identify significant safety trends. The data from these programs feeds into the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program, a collaborative government-industry initiative to help stakeholders make decisions about safety and implement proactive changes at the national level.

In this magazine’s “Guest Commentary,” Akbar Sultan, director of NASA’s Airspace Operations and Safety Program, highlights other milestone developments NASA has contributed to and discusses our continued partnership and shared safety mission. ALPA has partnered with the agency’s Airspace Operations and Safety Program team through our mutual work with the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST). This collaborative partnership among various stakeholders, including NASA, the FAA, airlines, manufacturers, and labor organizations like ALPA, focuses on developing proactive and voluntary safety enhancements, a proven and effective method for preserving safety through data analysis and research. NASA’s CAST team members leverage their many years of research experience to provide important insights and expertise on issues of safety, and their significant contributions within CAST make them a valued, long-standing, and trusted partner.

Of particular interest is the groundbreaking research that NASA has conducted regarding human intervention in aviation and pilot contributions to safety. The agency has pioneered new ways of thinking about safety that provide a clearer understanding of this research data and its relevance in an era of rapidly evolving automation development. By leveraging and collaborating on NASA’s research, the Association can better advocate for pilot-centric safety measures, contributing to the continuous improvement of aviation safety standards and practices, ultimately benefiting airline pilots, the passengers and cargo we carry, and the entire aviation industry.

Of course, while ALPA supports the use of technology to enhance safety and sustainable growth initiatives for our air transportation system, the Association opposes, and will continue to oppose, some aspects of these new concepts such as autonomous flight operations, application of artificial intelligence intending to remove pilots from the flight deck, or a reduction of human input at the controls of an aircraft. It’s exactly for this reason that ALPA’s Air Safety Organization must remain engaged with our strategic partners in the development of these initiatives to ensure that the safety standards we’ve fought so hard to achieve are maintained. Sharing safety knowledge is foundational to that goal. Participation in groups like CAST that focus on data sharing, analysis, and collaboration will be crucial in continuing to safeguard our national airspace system.

The Association’s ongoing and proactive engagement with diverse stakeholders like NASA ensures the line-pilot perspective remains central to the evolving air transportation system. Cooperation fosters harmonization of standards, promotes information sharing, and facilitates the adoption of new technologies and safety protocols. By participating in industrywide discussions and decision-making processes, ALPA ensures pilot concerns are heard and integrated into the development of regulations, procedures, and new technologies.

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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