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Facilitating Aviation – Decision-Making at Level 4


Level 4 in my hierarchical model comprises those entities that facilitate the conduct of aviation, both private and commercial. They provide some of the tools of production - the most obvious being airports and air navigation services - and also the regulatory frameworks and infrastructure without which modern aviation would be impossible. They may be state-run entities, private companies or some form of private/public enterprise. I have argued that the distinguishing feature of each level in the hierarchy is the mandate it holds to make specific classes of decisions. At Level 4, agencies make decisions about the provision of asset and the granting of permissions to lower-level actors. For example, governments build airports and runways. They also fund satellite systems that allow aircraft to navigate. Pilots cannot fly without a license issued by an authority. Airlines cannot do business without an operator’s certificate granted by an authority. A manufacturer cannot sell an aircraft unless it has an airworthiness approval, again, issued by an authority. Organisations at this level do not fly aircraft for gain, but without them, commercial aviation is not possible.

In this chapter, I will elaborate on the role of Level 4 agencies, how they exercise control and, importantly, some of the challenges they face that can give rise to failure. I want to look specifically at regulators and accident investigation agencies. Both are established by state legislation and exist in a symbiotic relationship. While aviation authorities exercise control, investigation agencies act as a feedback channel. Investigators need independence if they are to do their work properly but, while they inhabit the same ecosystem as authorities, they act in an advisory capacity. They lack power, and this has implications. Both create and promulgate rules and procedures, advice and guidance that shape activity, directly and indirectly, at lower levels. In the context of this book, activity at Level 4 creates opportunities for cross-scale interactions in the system, some of which we have seen in previous chapters. The impact of Level 4 on operations, then, is both direct through the need to comply with regulations but also indirect, because of the system dynamics. The key emergent property, I suggest, is trust. Failure on the part of either of these two key actors damages the travelling public’s trust in the aviation system and, hence, its economic viability.

I start with a discussion of the nature of regulation and then explore the dynamics of Level 4. As I write, the manufacturer, Boeing, is mired in the fallout from its ill-fated introduction of the B-737MAX. Although the story is ongoing, I will use what we do know about the certification of the aircraft to examine the relationship between authorities and manufacturers. I then explore the ditching of an aircraft off the coast of Norfolk Island, in the Pacific, in 2009 to throw light on the workings of an investigation and how the act of investigation is rarely a search for a simple truth. I concluded by looking at the relationship between Level 4 and the lower levels in my hierarchical model.

The Nature of Regulation

I want to start with a very brief look at how regulation has developed in aviation. The first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air manned flight took place on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In France, Santos-Dumont flew his aircraft in 1907 while the Wright Brothers travelled to Europe in 1908. Bleriot made the first crossing of the English Channel on 25 July 1909. In less than 6years, aviation had gone from a 12-second hop to a 30-minute international flight. The subsequent development of aviation has been phenomenal. Prior to 1914 and the outbreak of war, in the United Kingdom, regulation was primarily aimed at keeping people on the ground safe. The Board of Trade was responsible for the registration and certification of aircraft and pilots. War is often a crucible for technological development and, by the end of the 1914-1918 war, aircraft capable of carrying passengers for some distance became available as military bombers were decommissioned and converted. After 1918, although regulation remained focused on the airworthiness of structures, the promotion of the growth of air routes connecting the outposts of the empire became important, and we can start to see the emergence of a commercial imperative in regulation in addition to safety. It was originally the British government’s intention to delegate oversight to a registry, following the maritime model. The registry would verify the airworthiness of aircraft and, presumably, issue certificates. Up to this point, progress was driven by aircraft manufacturers, hence the emphasis on airworthiness. In 1933, the Gorell Committee was established to look at the broader aspects of aviation (Chaplin, 2011). As part of their work, analysis was undertaken of the 355 aircraft accidents that had occurred between 1926 and 1933. Of interest to us is the fact that in 258 cases (72.67%), ‘no part of the aircraft or power plant was in any way at fault’. Specifically, 177 cases (49.85%) were attributed to ‘errors of airmanship alone’. The committee concluded that ‘entirely the wrong values have been placed on the relative importance of the pilot, the machine and operational activities in arriving at the regulations’. Furthermore, ‘the failure of the pilot is by far the most potential source of accidents in flying’. Hobbs (2004) in an analysis of 100 aircraft accidents in Australia between 1921 and 1932 found a similar result, rather undermining the myth that increasing aircraft reliability prompted a need for crew resource management to look at the ‘human factor’. It has always been there, we just never looked for it. The publication of the Gorell Committee’s report followed that of the investigation into the R101 airship disaster and emphasised the need for a more comprehensive approach to aviation regulation. From the outset, then, it seems that the framing of regulations was problematic. The entity to be controlled - pilot or aircraft - was open to debate, and the initial assumptions about the issues to be guarded against were proving to be ill-found.

The Second World War (1939-1945) further disrupted the development of commercial aviation, but as it was drawing to a close, the Allied Powers began to build the frameworks that would govern the coming peace; one of which was to set up the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a branch of the UN, that would set the standards for global aviation. In the United Kingdom, increases in the technological complexity of aircraft, such as the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner that flew' in 1949, and moves towards broader international cooperation, exemplified by the Concorde project, provided an added impetus for collaborative approaches to regulation. The harmonisation of rule-making in Europe has led, ultimately, to the formation of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Within the United Kingdom, regulation had been undertaken by different branches of government, but an independent authority, answerable to a government minister, was established in 1969 w'ith responsibility for:

  • • the economic regulation of route licensing
  • • the control of air traffic
  • • the regulation of safety

In the USA, aviation developed along different lines to those seen in Europe. The carriage of mail was a significant stimulus in the development of commercial aviation, and legal oversight w'as the responsibility of the Department of Commerce. The death in an air crash of a famous American Football coach in 1931, followed by that of a US senator in 1935, prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the Civil Aeronautics Act into law', creating the independent Civil Aeronautics Authority. Accidents have often been significant triggers of regulatory change. For example, in 1919, the collision between tw'o Vickers Vimy aircraft flying in opposite directions, in bad weather, and following the same railway track north of Paris resulted in the introduction of the semicircular flight rule. In June 1956, tw'o passenger aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon, killing all the 128 passengers and crew' on board. The accident highlighted the fact that although aviation had grown significantly, oversight had not. In 1958, a law' that created the Federal Aviation Agency w'as passed, with a mandate to provide safe and efficient use of the national airspace. In both the UK and US cases, oversight was originally framed around registration, guarantees of airworthiness and commercial development. The system safety responsibility w'as a later addition.

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