BYU study shows inspecting airline ‘near misses’ could improve safety

Mark A. Philbrick
Paper airplanes illustrate the airline safety study that was conducted by Peter Madsen, a BYU professor. The study showed that “near misses” should be taken more seriously to improve airline safety. (Mark A. Philbrick)

BYU professor Peter Madsen recently conducted a study and found airlines should be learning more about airplane safety from “near misses.”

These are not fiery crashes people see on the news. The study defined near misses as either incapacitation of a flight crew member, software or mechanical problems with cockpit displays, poor handling of aircraft while decelerating on the runway after touch down, traffic congestion on the taxiway during aircraft taxiing or nuisance warnings and false alarms.

Partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the study showed airlines are missing a potential gold mine of ways to improve safety by ignoring near misses.

These near misses are more common than people would like to think about. Other studies showed how often these occur, according to Madsen.

“Studies show pilots or crew members make at least one potentially hazardous error on 68 percent of commercial airline flights, but very few of these errors lead to an accident,” Madsen said in a press release. “Airlines need to institute policies that encourage learning from these seemingly innocuous near misses.”

Robin Dillon-Merrill, a Georgetown professor who headed the study along with Madsen, said airplane travel is still very safe.

“This study was not super sexy by showing this big hole in the airline industry’s security procedures,” Dillon-Merrill said. “Mostly, we wanted to help airlines keep improving their safety procedures.”

Their study showed airlines made changes to increase their safety performance after their own accidents and other accidents different airlines experienced. Near misses only influence changes in safety procedure where there seems to be obvious signs of major risk to the airline.

Airlines paid more attention to risks that lead to accidents in the past rather than focusing on potential risks that could lead to accidents in the future, according to Madsen. He said this could be detrimental for the future of airline safety.

“We’re not saying airlines aren’t doing a good job — they are paying attention to near misses more than any other industry in the world,” Madsen said. “That said, near misses that are considered benign might be slipping through the cracks.”

Dillon-Merrill said she is optimistic about airlines instituting these changes in safety procedure.

“I’m pretty confident that airlines will change over time,” Dillon-Merrill said. “They are good at adapting to changes and really want to make airplane travel as safe as possible for everyone involved.”

The researchers suggested two ways airlines could improve their safety performance. First, they should continue successful data collection efforts, but expand which near misses are reported.

“If a flight attendant’s hand gets stuck in the door or airplanes collide on the ground, these are considered accidents,” Dillon-Merrill said. “It’s all about continuing to improve safety.”

Second, airlines should remain vigilant towards deviations from normal and uncover root causes of the deviations.

“It can be hard to learn from near misses because we are wired to ignore them,” Madsen said. “But the difference between a near miss and a larger failure may only be good fortune.”


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