Aviation Safety: FAA Has Begun Efforts to Make Data More Publicly Available

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-04-25.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to the Honorable
                  Ron Wyden, U.S. Senate

April 1997
                  AVIATION SAFETY
                  FAA Has Begun Efforts
                  to Make Data More
                  Publicly Available

                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division


                   April 25, 1997

                   The Honorable Ron Wyden
                   United States Senate

                   Dear Senator Wyden:

                   Public concern about the safety of the nation’s aviation system escalated
                   following the crashes of ValuJet flight 592 and TWA flight 800. The
                   Congress and the public have expressed interest in having the Federal
                   Aviation Administration (FAA) publish airline-specific safety data. In a
                   letter to the Administrator of the FAA dated July 10, 1996, you and Senator
                   Wendell Ford requested that the FAA work with the aviation community to
                   recommend the best means to educate the public and to make available to
                   them information about commercial aviation safety, while ensuring that
                   the safety and integrity of the system is maintained.

                   As agreed with your office, this report reviews FAA’s response to your
                   request. Specifically, it addresses the following questions: (1) What actions
                   has FAA taken to make aviation safety information more available to the
                   public? (2) What has been the public demand for FAA’s aviation safety
                   information? (3) What are FAA’s plans to expand the aviation safety
                   information available to the public? In addition, you asked us for our
                   observations about FAA’s progress in making safety information available
                   to the public.

                   FAA took a number of actions to provide aviation safety-related
Results in Brief   information to the public beginning in July 1996. FAA formed a working
                   group of senior-level agency officials and adopted a strategy of providing
                   aviation safety information to the public through a three-part effort:
                   establishing an aviation safety information web site linked to the FAA’s
                   Internet web site, publicizing significant enforcement actions,1 and
                   undertaking a public education campaign on aviation safety. As of April 10,
                   1997, FAA has included four databases on its aviation safety Internet web
                   site. Those databases include information on aviation accidents; other
                   safety-related incidents; traffic data (e.g., departures made) reported by
                   large commercial air carriers, which can be used to calculate comparative

                    FAA may initiate enforcement actions under its compliance and enforcement program in response to
                   apparent or alleged violations of the laws governing federal aviation or of the Federal Aviation
                   Regulations. Enforcement actions include administrative actions, such as warning notices and letters
                   of correction; legal enforcement remedies, such as amending, suspending, or revoking airlines’
                   operating certificates; and punitive actions, such as imposing civil (financial) penalties and temporarily
                   suspending certificates.

                   Page 1                                                            GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

             accident or incident rates; and the safety recommendations made by the
             National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to FAA.

             Since FAA first made its aviation safety site on the Internet available to the
             public, it has seen an approximate fourfold increase in the number of
             users who have accessed the web site each week. Usage has increased
             during those weeks when a public announcement related to the site has
             been made. In addition, FAA’s data indicate that users are spending more
             time using the site. It is too soon, however, to tell if these trends will

             FAA plans to expand the number of databases that it posts on its aviation
             safety web site throughout the rest of 1997. It expects to incorporate
             information on the airlines’ composition (i.e., the make, models, and ages
             of aircraft in each airline’s fleet) and other indicators of aviation safety
             (e.g., data on near mid-air collisions).

             FAA is responsible for setting standards, assessing compliance, and taking
Background   enforcement actions to ensure that the airlines meet safety standards. To
             carry out this responsibility, FAA monitors the airlines’ compliance with the
             Federal Aviation Regulations through periodic inspections. Those
             regulations set the standards for the airlines’ operations and maintenance

             A number of possible indicators of aviation safety exist. In a 1988 report,
             we identified and assessed potential ways of measuring the airlines’
             performance in areas important to safety.2 The accident rate is a widely
             recognized measure of overall aviation safety.3 However, because
             accidents occur so infrequently, there are no statistically significant
             differences in the accident rates among similar airlines. Also, because
             accident rates reflect what has already happened, their relevance to
             accident prediction or prevention can be limited. Among the other
             measures discussed in that report were information on inspection results,
             unsafe incidents, airlines’ financial condition, pilots’ competence, and
             maintenance quality.

              Aviation Safety: Measuring How Safely Individual Airlines Operate (GAO/RCED-88-61, Mar. 18, 1988).
             The report also reviewed government and academic research projects to develop basic information on
             factors influencing aviation safety.
              The accident rate is computed by dividing the number of accidents by a measure of the airline’s
             activity, such as the number of operating hours, passenger miles, or departures.

             Page 2                                                          GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                        Safety-related aviation information varies in the extent to which it is
                        available to the public. In general, “availability” indicates whether or not
                        information is protected from dissemination by federal law. For example,
                        the National Transportation Safety Board, the official source of
                        information on airline accidents, routinely publishes information on
                        aviation accidents. On the other hand, the public can obtain some other
                        information only after making a request through the Freedom of
                        Information Act (FOIA). According to FAA, information on the enforcement
                        actions against regulated entities (i.e., air carriers, airports, manufacturers,
                        schools, or repair stations) has generally been available to the public only
                        through FOIA requests, or when FAA elects, on a case-by-case basis, to
                        publicize an enforcement action.

                        FAA began to take a number of actions to provide aviation safety-related
FAA’s Actions to        information to the public in July 1996. The Administrator asked FAA’s
Provide More Aviation   Office of System Safety to assemble a working group of senior-level
Safety Information to   officials to determine how the FAA could most efficiently and effectively
                        accomplish this task. In addition to FAA’s then-Deputy Administrator, the
the Public              group included representatives from FAA’s offices of Regulation and
                        Certification, Chief Counsel, Government and Industry Affairs, Civil
                        Aviation Security, and Public Affairs.

                        FAA solicited comments from the public and from the aviation community
                        on how best to educate the public about, and make information available
                        on, commercial aviation safety. FAA contracted with a consultant to
                        generate a discussion of and obtain feedback on the types of aviation
                        safety data that FAA might make available to the public, the means by
                        which such information might be distributed, and the issues and
                        considerations that arise in the distribution of these data. The contractor’s
                        draft report was made available for public comment through the Federal
                        Register on November 13, 1996.

                        According to senior FAA officials, in deciding what means the agency
                        would use to provide greater information to the public, FAA recognized the
                        challenges of availability and accessibility. FAA noted the growing use of
                        the Internet as an expedient and cost-effective means to provide
                        information, especially to those in government, the aviation industry,
                        academia, and the media. As a result, FAA announced on January 29, 1997,
                        that it would use the Internet to pursue all three of its information
                        strategies: establishing an aviation safety information web site linked to

                        Page 3                                            GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

FAA’s Internet web site, publicizing significant enforcement actions, and
undertaking a public education campaign on aviation safety.

However, because broad sections of the general public may not have
access to the Internet, FAA recognized that it might need to distribute
safety information through some other supplementary means. FAA
considered using toll-free telephone numbers to provide the public with
certain safety information. However, on the basis of the experience of the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, FAA decided that it lacked
the staff resources to answer the large number of calls that it might
receive.4 FAA subsequently decided to provide information, at least initially,
through other public channels. As the Internet information effort develops,
FAA expects to reassess the need for toll-free telephone access.

FAA  announced that beginning on February 1, 1997, it would issue press
releases on newly issued enforcement actions concerning significant cases
against regulated aviation entities that involve safety and security issues,
including cases seeking civil penalties of $50,000 or more. As of April 16,
FAA had issued press releases about three enforcement actions involving
civil penalties, along with three instances in which it has revoked air
carriers’ operating certificates. In addition to its normal procedures for
issuing press releases, FAA has included them on its aviation safety
information web site. FAA’s homepage is pictured in figure 1.

 According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s budget submission to the Congress
for fiscal year 1998, its Auto Safety Hotline received over 800,000 calls in calendar year 1995, and the
number was expected to rise in 1996 and 1997. The Department of Transportation has requested
$1.8 million for the hotline in fiscal year 1998. Among other things, the hotline provides consumers
with information concerning motor vehicle safety, such as recall information on a consumer’s vehicle
or child safety seat, and general information to increase consumers’ understanding and awareness of
traffic safety.

Page 4                                                           GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

Figure 1: FAA’s Internet Homepage

                                    Source: http://www.faa.gov

                                    Page 5                       GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

FAA began its public education campaign about aviation safety on April 2,
1997. On the basis of the public comments received on the consultant’s
draft report, FAA determined that it needed to explore more effective ways
of communicating with consumers about aviation safety. To complement
its information-sharing efforts, FAA’s public education campaign is
designed to help the public better understand the safety of the overall
system. FAA prepared a short overview of the aviation safety system and
included it on its aviation safety information web site.

In addition to the press release and public education information, the
aviation safety information web site includes a link to a web site
maintained by the FAA’s Office of System Safety, where the public can
access and search several of the principal sources of aviation safety data
and information that are used by the federal government. It also includes
an explanation of how to use the data and cautions about how those
calculations should and should not be interpreted. Figure 2 shows the
information presented on the web site on aviation safety data.

Page 6                                         GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

Figure 2: FAA’s Web Site on Aviation Safety Data

                                          Source: http://nasdac.faa.gov/internet/

                                          FAA plans to make public various aviation safety-related databases over
                                          time. When it was first made available to the public, the web site included
                                          three aviation safety databases:

                                          Page 7                                          GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

•   The NTSB Aviation Accident/Incident Database, which is the official
    repository of aviation accident data and causal factors. NTSB generally
    defines an “accident” as an occurrence associated with the operation of an
    aircraft in which individuals are killed or suffer serious injury, or the
    aircraft is substantially damaged. An NTSB-defined incident is an
    occurrence, other than an accident, associated with the operation of an
    aircraft that affects or could affect the safety of operations. The NTSB
    database contains only selected incident reports. As of April 9, 1997, this
    database included a total of 37,696 records of aviation accidents and
    incidents, dating back to 1983. By far, the vast majority (34,073, or
    approximately 90.4 percent) concerned general aviation aircraft accidents
    and incidents; 3,623 records (9.6 percent) concerned large or commuter air
    carriers’ accidents and incidents.
•   The NTSB’s safety recommendations to FAA with FAA’s responses. NTSB uses
    information it gathers during accident investigations and the
    determination of probable cause to make safety recommendations to all
    elements of the transportation industry. The recipient of a
    recommendation must respond formally to the recommendation and
    specify what action is or is not being taken and why. This database
    includes the 3,471 recommendations made by NTSB to FAA since 1963, along
    with FAA’s responses.5
•   The FAA’s Incident Data System, which contains a more extensive
    collection of records of aviation incidents—potentially hazardous events
    that do not meet the aircraft damage or personal injury thresholds
    contained in NTSB’s definition of an accident. As of April 9, 1997, this
    database included a total of 67,057 records of aviation incidents, dating
    back to 1978. As with the NTSB’s Aviation Accident/Incident Database, a
    relatively small percentage (28.0 percent) of the total number of records
    concerned incidents experienced by large or commuter air carriers.

    Users cannot readily retrieve complete copies of these three databases.
    Rather, users may browse (i.e., look at) individual records, count records
    (e.g., all accidents involving commuter air carriers during a given time
    period), or select particular reports on the basis of user-supplied words or
    phrases (e.g., smoke) and/or user-selected criteria, such as the aircraft’s
    category of operation.6

     We have recently reported on FAA’s responsiveness to recommendations made by us, the Department
    of Transportation’s Inspector General, and NTSB. See Aviation Safety: FAA Generally Agrees With but
    Is Slow in Implementing Safety Recommendations (GAO/RCED-96-193, Sept. 23, 1996).
     An air carrier’s category of operation refers to that part of the Federal Aviation Regulations under
    which the carrier operates. Large air carriers’ (airlines’) operations are covered by part 121 of the
    regulations, and commuter air carriers’ operations are covered by part 135.

    Page 8                                                            GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                      FAA added another database on March 31, 1997, that provides the means by
                      which the accident and incident information can be put into some context.
                      FAA extracted this database—Airline Traffic Statistics—from information
                      gathered by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).7 It contains
                      three selected measures of individual airlines’ operations: the number of
                      departures, hours flown, and miles flown, by year, in domestic commercial
                      service during the 5-year period from 1991 through 1995. Those statistics
                      are the activity measures most frequently used to calculate accident and
                      incident rates for the airlines. Unlike the first databases that FAA included
                      on its web site, users cannot search the data on traffic statistics on the
                      Internet. Users can, however, obtain a copy of this complete database
                      from FAA’s web site, for use on their own computers.

                      FAA includes warnings and disclaimers to explain the limitations of the
                      databases it includes on its web sites. In general, these warnings and
                      disclaimers state that the contents of the web sites are unofficial. FAA
                      notes that the databases may not be complete and makes no certification
                      about the accuracy of the data.

                      Since FAA first established its aviation safety web site on the Internet, it
Early Data Indicate   has seen an approximately fourfold increase in the number of users who
That Public Demand    have accessed the safety data web site each week. FAA’s computers
for Aviation Safety   measure usage in several ways, and each indicates that usage of FAA’s site
                      has grown since it was made public. The best measure of web site usage,
Information on the    according to FAA officials, is the number of users who have accessed the
Internet Has Grown    site. Although FAA cannot identify every individual user who accesses its
                      site, it does count the number of users that access the web site over a
                      period of time using a measure called a “user session.”8 In mid-January,
                      before FAA publicly announced the availability of the web site, it averaged
                      about 2,000 user sessions per week, even though the web site consisted
                      mainly of a page explaining that the data will be available at a later date.
                      After media attention about the availability of the web site in late January,
                      the usage that week grew to almost 9,000 user sessions. After declining
                      over several weeks, usage again grew after FAA added the searchable
                      safety data to the site on February 28. FAA hosted about 8,200 user sessions

                       BTS is a unit of the Department of Transportation. BTS compiles, analyzes, and makes accessible
                      information on the nation’s transportation system. The major U.S. airlines are required by federal
                      regulation to provide specific financial, activity, and descriptive data to BTS.
                       As defined by FAA’s software, a user session is a period during which another computer is retrieving
                      data from FAA’s Internet web site.

                      Page 9                                                          GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                                               during the last week of March. Figure 3 illustrates the number of user
                                               sessions per week for the safety data web site.

Figure 3: Total Weekly Usage of FAA’s Aviation Safety Data Web Site, for Weeks Ending January 4 Through April 12, 1997

10000   User sessions











         1/4       1/11   1/18   1/25   2/1a            2/8      2/15     2/22      3/1b     3/8      3/15     3/22     3/29      4/5       4/12
         Week ending

                                                   Press conference introducing web site—1/29/97.
                                                   First searchable safety data put on web site—2/28/97.

                                               Source: GAO’s analysis of FAA’s data.

                                               In addition to an increase in the number of users, FAA’s data indicate that
                                               the public is utilizing the safety data web site more often than when it was
                                               first made available. First, FAA tracks the average time of each user
                                               session. The length of the average user session had grown to about 12
                                               minutes in early April. Also, FAA tracks the number of times each user
                                               requests a file from FAA’s computers—called a “hit.”9 The average number
                                               of hits generated during each user session has also grown, from 18.6 in
                                               early January to as high as 31.9 in early April. (These data on the number
                                               of hits per user session are displayed in table 1.) According to FAA officials,

                                                FAA’s software could generate several hits during each user session—one for the file containing the
                                               page itself and one for each of the graphic files displayed on the page. However, because of the way
                                               most users’ web software is designed, repeat visits to the same page may not be counted as hits.

                                               Page 10                                                         GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                                        the increases in both of these statistics indicate that users are finding the
                                        safety data more useful, possibly for research, than in the past. They
                                        added, however, that it is too early to tell if these trends will continue.

Table 1: Weekly Hits per User Session
for FAA’s Aviation Safety Data Web                                                      Average time of    Average number
Site, for Weeks Ending January 4                                         Number of user      each user      of hits per user
Through April 12, 1997                  Week ending                          sessions session (minutes)             session
                                        1/4/97                                     861               N/A               18.6
                                        1/11/97                                  2,223               N/A               17.7
                                        1/18/97                                  2,333               N/A               18.0
                                        1/25/97                                  1,711               N/A               18.6
                                        2/1/97                                   8,916               N/A               20.8
                                        2/8/97                                   7,071               1.5               21.4
                                        2/15/97                                  4,189               N/A               20.3
                                        2/22/97                                  3,316               N/A               19.3
                                        3/1/97                                   5,091               N/A               21.8
                                        3/8/97                                   4,358              10.7               25.0
                                        3/15/97                                  6,966               9.9               22.0
                                        3/22/97                                  6,096              10.0               21.7
                                        3/29/97                                  8,214              11.3               23.0
                                        4/5/97                                   4,733              12.0               31.9
                                        4/12/97                                  4,926              11.3               29.0
                                        Note: N/A = Not available.

                                        Source: GAO’s analysis of FAA’s data.

                                        Finally, FAA’s computers also keep track of the host computer of each user
                                        who accesses the safety data site. The user’s host computer is operated by
                                        the organization that provides access to the Internet, whether that
                                        organization is an Internet service provider (such as America Online,
                                        Compuserve, or Netcom, that mainly serve the public) or another
                                        organization, such as Boeing. These data indicate that many of the host
                                        computers that access FAA’s site most frequently are operated by Internet
                                        service providers. Other frequent users are the Air Force and airlines such
                                        as Delta, which operate host computers that are generally available only to
                                        their employees. These same data indicate that about 10 percent of those
                                        who access FAA’s site are doing so from a computer located outside the
                                        United States—mostly from Germany and Canada.

                                        Page 11                                              GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                                          Because FAA made the safety education material available only recently
                                          (on April 2, 1997), it has only limited information on the number of user
                                          sessions for that web site: FAA recorded 313 user sessions on that web site
                                          for the week ending April 5 and 515 for the week ending April 12. For the
                                          press releases on enforcement actions, however, FAA’s statistics indicate
                                          that weekly usage has generally fallen since FAA first made those press
                                          releases available, and fewer users have accessed this page than have
                                          accessed the safety data web site. Figure 4 shows the change in the
                                          number of weekly uses of the press release information since early
                                          February 1997.

Figure 4: Total Weekly Usage of FAA’s
Safety Press Release Internet Page, for   2500     User sessions
Weeks Ending February 8 Through
April 12, 1997









                                                    2/8       2/15      2/22      3/1       3/8       3/15      3/22       3/29      4/5       4/12
                                                    Week ending

                                          Source: GAO’s analysis of FAA’s information.

                                          FAA plans to add other safety-related information to the web site gradually
FAA’s Plans to Expand                     over time. By May 31, 1997, FAA plans to add data from the FAA National
Information About                         Airspace Incident Monitoring System, which includes information on near
Aviation Safety on Its                    mid-air collisions.10 On June 1, 1997, FAA expects to make available a
                                          quarterly report of enforcement actions in the safety and security areas
Web Site
                                            Near mid-air collisions are incidents associated with the operation of an aircraft in which a
                                          possibility of collision occurs as a result of an aircraft’s proximity of less than 500 feet to another

                                          Page 12                                                             GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                       against aviation entities. This report, which describes enforcement actions
                       closed with a civil penalty or orders of certificate suspension or
                       revocation, will cover the first quarter of 1997. Thereafter, FAA expects to
                       issue its quarterly enforcement reports about 30 days after the end of each

                       FAA  has also indicated that it will expand the available information on
                       airline traffic statistics in two ways. First, it will add data for 1996 as soon
                       as it receives them from BTS in June or July. In addition, FAA expects to add
                       traffic statistics for commuter airlines. At present, the traffic statistics that
                       FAA has posted are limited to ones on domestic operations by large air
                       carriers (i.e., generally those that operate aircraft with more than 60
                       seats). In addition, by the end of September 1997, FAA will develop a new
                       database that will provide certain basic information about each air carrier,
                       such as the number of specific makes, the models, and the ages of the
                       aircraft flown by the carrier and the date when the carrier was certificated
                       by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and FAA to operate.11 According
                       to FAA officials, the agency has not yet decided how much data should be
                       provided from the existing FAA databases or whether some information
                       could be better provided by the individual air carriers, perhaps in
                       conjunction with their trade associations, through direct links between
                       their respective Internet web sites and FAA’s.

                       According to FAA officials, the agency also intends to evaluate its efforts to
                       provide safety information to the public, but not until March 1998, after
                       the web site has been in operation for approximately 1 year.

                       In an October 1996 report on aviation safety, we concluded that the time
GAO’s Observations     had come for FAA to begin the process that can lead to publishing
on FAA’s Progress to   airline-specific safety data.12 The report recommended that the Secretary
Date                   of Transportation instruct the Administrator of FAA to study the feasibility
                       of developing measurable criteria for what constitutes aviation safety,
                       including those airline-specific, safety-related performance measures that

                         Before commencing operations, new airlines must obtain two separate authorizations from the
                       DOT—“economic”    authority from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and “safety” authority
                       from FAA. The Office of the Secretary of Transportation is responsible for assessing whether
                       applicants have the managerial competence, disposition to comply with regulations, and financial
                       resources necessary to operate a new airline. FAA uses a multiphased process to determine whether
                       an applicant’s manuals, aircraft, facilities, and personnel meet federal safety standards. For additional
                       information on these certification processes, see Certification of New Airlines: Department of
                       Transportation Has Taken Action to Improve Its Certification Process (GAO/RCED-96-8, Jan. 11, 1996).
                        Aviation Safety: New Airlines Illustrate Long-Standing Problems in FAA’s Inspection Program
                       (GAO/RCED-97-2, Oct. 17, 1996).

                       Page 13                                                           GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

                  could be published for use by the traveling public. DOT concurred with that

                  FAA’s Internet web site represents a good first step toward providing the
                  public with some aviation safety information. Providing the information in
                  which FAA has the greatest confidence—NTSB’s accident/incident data,
                  FAA’s incident data, and BTS’ traffic data—seems to be a reasonable
                  approach. The early data on the usage of the web site indicate that the
                  public has an interest in aviation safety data.

                  FAA has said that evaluating its efforts will be an important aspect of its
                  overall strategy of providing more information to the traveling public. We
                  agree. Such an evaluation could help FAA determine whether it is meeting
                  the needs of the traveling public and whether it should improve, refine, or
                  expand its safety information, as well as improve the quality of the
                  underlying data. It might also incorporate considerations of the extent to
                  which the public finds these data easily usable, in view of the complexity
                  and size of the posted databases. While it is too early to conduct an
                  evaluation, FAA could begin the planning necessary to ensure that its
                  evaluation produces meaningful results.

                  We provided DOT and FAA with copies of a draft of this report. We met with
Agency Comments   DOT and FAA officials, including the Manager of FAA’s Safety Data Services
                  Division, acting on behalf of the Deputy Assistant Administrator for
                  System Safety. DOT and FAA officials agreed with the draft report’s overall
                  message and provided editorial and technical comments that we
                  incorporated as appropriate.

                  The information in this report was developed through discussions with
                  officials at FAA and analysis of data on the usage of FAA’s web site over
                  time. We also reviewed previously issued GAO products, pertinent federal
                  regulations, and FAA’s Internet web sites. We did not independently assess
                  the quality of the data that FAA includes on its Internet web sites. We
                  performed our review from March through mid-April 1997 in accordance
                  with generally accepted government auditing standards.

                  As you requested, unless you publicly announce its contents earlier, we
                  plan no further distribution of this report for 30 days. We will then send
                  copies to the Secretary of Transportation; the Director, Office of

                  Page 14                                         GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety

           Management and Budget; and other interested parties. We will also make
           copies available to others upon request.

           Major contributors to this report were Thomas Kai; Steve Martin; and
           James Sweetman, Jr. Please call me at (202) 512-3650 if you or your staff
           have further questions.

           Sincerely yours,

           Gerald L. Dillingham
           Associate Director, Transportation Issues

(341531)   Page 15                                        GAO/RCED-97-137 Aviation Safety
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