Study finds US airlines learn from close calls

Travel via large US commercial airlines is among the world´s safest transportation modes, but airlines may be lulled into a false confidence when they interpret averted collisions and other near-misses as proof that their safety systems are satisfactory, according to a team of expert risk analysts.

In calling for stricter scrutiny of near-misses as indicators that safety systems may need improvement, the researchers draw on research that finds near-misses “may masquerade as success, and apparent success tends to breed complacency” because an organization´s decision makers institutionalize established practices and routines and “reduce organizational search activities aimed at identifying further system improvements.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization defines near-miss incidents as “occurrences, other than accidents, associated with the operation of an aircraft that affected or could have affected the safety of operation,” or, the analysts note, “outcomes that could have been worse but for the intervention of good fortune.”

Risk analysts Peter Madsen of Brigham Young University and Robin L. Dillon and Catherine H. Tinsley of Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business, presented their data and analysis in a new paper, “Airline Safety Improvement through Experience with Near-Misses: A Cautionary Tale,” published in the online version of Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis.

Prior research, much of it conducted by Dillon and Tinsley, has shown that “people have a natural tendency to see near-misses as successes rather than as indicators that something is wrong,” says Madsen. He explains that the new research, using data from 1990-2007, shows that airlines successfully learn from near-misses when two conditions are met.

First, the near-miss falls into a recognized category, and, second, that category is recognized to have previously caused accidents. But if near-misses “don´t fit into a recognized category or fit into a category that isn´t currently seen as particularly dangerous,” said Madsen, airlines may be squandering an opportunity to collect useful, safety-relevant information that could be gained from those other types of near-misses. Additional efforts to collect and use this information could yield further safety improvements, the study suggests.

Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA), an interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all who are interested in risk analysis, a critical function in complex modern societies. Risk analysis includes risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and risk policy affecting individuals, public- and private-sector organizations, and societies at a local, regional, national, or global level.