FAA to pool safety data

Just days before the crash of a ValuJet DC-9 in the Florida Everglades, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed an international initiative to identify safety threats before accidents occur by pooling safety-related data from all corners of the aviation industry.

Although the FAA and other groups have already made strides in analyzing safety data, the Global Analysis and Information Network (GAIN) is expected to go far beyond any other project in the scope of industry involvement and the sophistication of the information systems involved.

"This is far more important than anybody realizes," said FAA administrator David Hinson. GAIN "will have the most significant long-term, positive affect on flight safety than any other steps we have taken."

GAIN, as proposed by the FAA, would be privately owned and operated. The organization—likely an aviation consortium—would create a comprehensive network of data by working with international airlines, airline pilots, machinists and other aviation groups. The group would develop data analysis methods and disseminate its findings.

Although many issues must be addressed before GAIN takes flight—including regulatory and cultural concerns in the aviation industry—the FAA believes the project offers the best chance to prevent airline disasters by creating an "early warning system."

By using sophisticated data management techniques, GAIN will be able to identify critical data patterns and associations across different aviation segments. "The fundamental tenet is to create the ability to see problems before they become acute or fatal," Hinson said.

GAIN will take advantage of existing and evolving technology being developed for commercial data warehouse projects. This involves data mining tools for such functions as data visualization, database query, statistical analysis, patterns and text themes.

GAIN will not involve a monolithic data warehouse, but a distributed network of data sources that can be drawn upon as needed. Without GAIN, many early warnings go unrecognized until an accident occurs, said Christopher Hart, assistant administrator of flight safety at the FAA. In many cases, "warning" incidents are noted by the group involved, but the data does not leaves its original database until an accident investigation.

The FAA is now looking for a trail of such clues in the ValuJet DC-9 accident. For example, the FAA last week found that the same aircraft that just crashed had been forced to abort seven different flights in the last 18 months because of mechanical malfunctions.

In particular, the FAA hopes to alleviate the human factor, in which the judgment of pilots, controllers, machinists or other personnel result in a mishap or near-mishap.

The FAA knows that the data sources GAIN needs already exist. Most aviation segments collect significant amounts of data for their own use. The aircraft themselves collect data in flight on all aspects of their operations.

More difficult is how to convince these organizations to volunteer the information. The FAA has the involvement and support of the pilots, machinists and other groups.

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