Working Collaboratively to Ensure a Safe National Air Transportation System

By Akbar Sultan, Director, NASA Airspace Operations and Safety Program

Airline travel is the world’s safest mode of transportation, in large part due to the professionalism and commitment to excellence demonstrated daily by pilots during line operations. As the air transportation system changes, driven by emerging entrants, markets, state-of-the-art technology, and new operational concepts, our goal remains the same: a system that enhances its safety standards while maintaining affordability and efficiency.

NASA has worked for decades with the FAA and industry on long-term research to produce information and technologies to fundamentally mitigate aviation risks. Today, every U.S. aircraft and U.S. air traffic control facility has NASA-developed technology on board. In the 1980s, NASA initiated research efforts associated with synthetic and enhanced vision systems to increase pilot awareness and allow aircraft to land in low-visibility conditions. Many aircraft now offer these capabilities, and multiple manufacturers have developed systems for tablets that can be used on board general aviation aircraft. And in the late 1970s, the agency’s research helped identify cultural norms within the aviation community that resulted in increased vulnerability to crew communication errors. NASA developed training methods and techniques to support improved crew resource management, which has become a global standard with training requirements mandated by the FAA, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

Aviation is now on the verge of another significant period of transformation, with rapid evolution of new technologies, vehicles, and operations on the horizon. Maintaining safety will require timely recognition and mitigation of safety issues and a proactive approach to meet these challenges. In collaboration with ALPA and the broader aviation community, NASA’s vision for safety assurance is achieved by leveraging growing sources of aviation data, commercial data analytics methods, architectures, and the “Internet of things” to enable monitoring, prediction, and prognostics capabilities.

Collaborative research efforts within NASA’s System-Wide Safety project are conducted by researchers, scientists, and engineers, in conjunction with airline partners, with the goal of ensuring the safety and reliability of our nation’s airspace. It’s with this partnership in mind that NASA is producing a series of articles for Air Line Pilot that details joint initiatives between NASA and airlines with ALPA-represented pilots. We’ll expand awareness about NASA’s innovative research partnerships and the opportunities made possible through sharing data and subject-matter expertise. These articles will underscore the pressing need for cutting-edge technologies and forward-thinking solutions to address the complex challenges of the modern world. NASA’s and ALPA’s shared commitment, backed by decades of experience, positions us at the forefront of pioneering research that will transcend conventional aerospace engineering and safety standards and transform the aviation landscape.

As we explore the future of air travel in upcoming articles, we’ll look at innovations in technologies, vehicles, and operational concepts. We’ll also cover topics such as safety data analysis, evolving safety management, understanding human performance, addressing fatigue and its mitigations, quantifying pilot contributions to safety, emphasizing the human factor, and advanced air mobility concepts. NASA’s vision is a reimagined air transportation system called “Sky for All,” which would be implemented by 2050 and build upon the FAA’s information-centric national airspace system vision for 2035.

The collaborative efforts detailed in these articles will highlight the contributions made by NASA and the commercial aviation sector, facilitated by strategic partnerships and a shared commitment. Without the support of ALPA and the invaluable opportunities provided by working with airlines and professional pilots, such impactful research wouldn’t be possible.

We hope that these articles will inspire a renewed confidence in the future of aviation safety, reinforcing our nation’s commitment to pioneering advancements that transcend the limits of what’s possible as we collectively build a future Sky for All that’s also safe for all.

On behalf of NASA and its exceptional team of researchers and scientists, I’m honored to be a part of this team approach. As the director of NASA’s Airspace Operations and Safety Program, I’m consistently impressed by the technological innovations achieved by the aviation research and development community. Such advancements are crucial to the future of our national airspace system, and our success as a national aeronautics research agency depends on partnerships with airlines committed to groundbreaking achievements in technology and operational concepts that prioritize safety.

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

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