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"Rules of the sky"

A proposed rule at the Federal Aviation Administration could give the agency

a better picture of safety trends by providing access to airlines' digital

flight data.

If the rule is finalized, which the FAA predicts could happen in about

a year, it would help the agency use aggregate data from multiple air carriers

to make policy decisions about the future of the National Airspace System.

The Flight Operational Quality Assurance Rule, which was proposed June

30, would require any airline that participates in an FOQA program to use

sophisticated analysis tools to submit periodic reports to the FAA. Identification

would be stripped from the reports, and the airlines would never submit

data about an individual flight or pilot.

The rule comes on the heels of an FAA program that encourages voluntary,

anonymous reporting of safety problems, except in cases of criminal activity.

"The FAA's purpose in acquiring this information is for safety enhancement,

not to take action against an airline," said Tom Longridge, FAA program

manager for Flight Operational Quality Assurance. Longridge said the information

would be used to concentrate on shared goals — such as reducing the accident

rate — by mining the airlines' data for trends in faulty equipment or problems

with approaches at certain airports.

The FAA's goal is to reduce the commercial aviation accident rate by

80 percent by 2007.

"If you see trends taking place across airlines, it might be an indication

of a problem with how FAA manages the airspace system at a national level,"

Long-ridge said. "We no longer have to depend on people's opinions on this.

We can use objective, quantitative data."

Under the rule, the FAA would provide participating airlines with software

to convert data into a standard format for flight data recorder — "black

box" — reporting. The software is capable of translating raw data to correspond

with events significant to airline operations, such as descent speed, Longridge

said. The FAA has developed a list of standardized events.

The airlines would transmit the reports to the FAA via a secure Internet

transaction using an IPSec-compliant virtual private network client and

standard World Wide Web browser. The user would have a user name, password

and digital certificate to access the VPN.

The FAA would store the reports in a large-scale relational database.

The FAA's internal analysis and distribution system uses commercial standards

and software for data storage and retrieval.

UPS and eight passenger airlines already have FOQA programs: Alaska

Airlines, Continental Airlines, Continental Express, Delta Air Lines, Northwest

Airlines, TWA, United Airlines and US Airways. The FAA's FOQA budget for

2000 is $3 million, and the 2001 request for the program is $2.2 million.

Individual airlines would be responsible for initiating corrective action

for safety problems in airline operations or aircraft, Longridge said. The

FAA's role is to make sure corrective intervention was implemented and to

determine if it was effective, he said.

The rule has the potential not only to improve air safety but also to

increase the efficiency of the National Airspace System. The FAA's flight

inspection team, which uses a fleet of aircraft to test and certify navigational

aids and airport approaches, sees the data as a way to make FAA instrument

approach procedures more accommodating to different aircraft.

A big push in safety programs is to make approaches into airports simpler

for pilots and to take into account the needs of different types of aircraft,

said Jon Phelps, the FAA's director of safety and quality assurance in the

Aviation Systems Standards group in Oklahoma City.

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