Can We Create Safer Airports?

Moving millions of airline passengers each year is an intricate ballet of logistical, operational and technical excellence. How do we rigorously mitigate safety risks before they ever emerge? Two WSP experts take us behind the scenes.

Although high-profile safety incidents do happen, the industry performs incredibly well given the sheer volume of traffic that moves through our airports every day. So how does a sector as complex as aviation deliver such impressive safety statistics? One part of that equation is hours and hours of rigorous, detailed audit and regulatory compliance work — all of which takes place behind the scenes.

Airports have long been safety leaders, with some of the best statistics in the transportation industry. But the sector has only reached that point by pushing for continuous improvement. Sometimes, that improvement involves spending three days walking every inch of the runway network, or meticulously documenting safety performance in a 300-page audit report.

As you might imagine, airports need to meet intensely detailed regulatory requirements prescribed by Transport Canada. Safety Management Systems (SMS)— incorporating everything from safety reporting, training, proactive hazards management and conducting risk assessments on any new changes — are subject to exacting standards. Regular audits are mandated, with potential fines for non-compliance. To meet these standards, airports will often partner with external experts to conduct quality control and assurance audits, develop procedures, write operational process documents, and create training programs.

During airport visits, experts like those on our Planning and Advisory team, will spend several days with boots on the ground inspecting airside infrastructure like markings, signs, pavement conditions and lighting. But beyond quality control, which is just checking compliance, the ultimate goal is to move to a true quality assurance conversation, which is based on process and performance. The intent of our work in a quality assurance role is how to make a safe system even safer. When rare catastrophic failures occur in aviation, the consequences can be dire.


Collaborative dialogue, knowledge-share

Although these requirements and audits are mandated by regulation, many airports really embrace them as an opportunity for continuous improvement, tying informal best practices into one comprehensive program.

When external partners are involved, even in an audit context, it is still a very collaborative process. In practice, it’s not a matter of one-sided regulatory enforcement — it should be an open dialogue on how to develop operational processes, and ultimately improve safety performance. By capturing the processes that are working well, standardizing and formalizing them, there is a collaborative knowledge-share process across the entire airport. This minimizes potential vulnerabilities that can arise when there is staff turnover, institutional knowledge loss or misaligned processes. Further, when there is a documented process, it can be referred back to when an incident or hazard is identified, and through investigations one can determine whether the process was effective, and improve it if required.

Gathering this information is empowering, because once there are documented trends and a cohesive approach, it’s much easier to justify investments.


Beyond the paperwork

Creating safer airports isn’t just about audits, processes and paperwork. Once the legwork is done and the documents are signed and stacked, we need to bring the theory to life.

A great example of this is when an airport needed a quality assurance audit, and our final report was over 300 pages. That level of technical detail wasn’t applicable to everyone, and it needed to translate into tangible actions. Building on the report, we provided airport employees with hands-on manuals, ongoing operational assistance, and practical training. Developing and acting on corrective actions in practice assists the airport certificate holder in achieving and maintaining regulatory compliance. As airport operations are often dynamic, with safety critical functions being undertaken it is imperative that the identified non-compliances are identified and mitigated before they present safety hazards.

Assistance and collaboration in deciphering the technical side of things is a key piece in making safety improvements stick both broadly across the organization, and deeply into daily processes. It should be a collaborative process where external advisors simply support the airport in setting up these processes for themselves, so they are sustainable over the long term and closely interwoven into the culture and fabric of the airport.


Checks and balances

In an industry with such complex regulatory environment, and operations, it’s critical to have a holistic and robust series of checks and balances for safety management practices. This is where an external perspective can be invaluable. Bringing fresh eyes to these operations, and conducting trend analysis and documentation that is detached from institutional bias, can help identify systemic issues that are hard to see from a day-to-day perspective.

James Reason’s Swiss Cheese model of safety filters provides some of the best insight into the importance of examining safety systems holistically — not just one isolated component at a time.

“High technology systems have many defensive layers: some are engineered (alarms, physical barriers, automatic shutdowns, etc.), others rely on people (surgeons, anaesthetists, pilots, control room operators, etc), and yet others depend on procedures and administrative controls. Their function is to protect potential victims and assets from local hazards. Mostly they do this very effectively, but there are always weaknesses,” he wrote in an academic paper on the topic.

“In an ideal world each defensive layer would be intact. In reality, however, they are more like slices of Swiss cheese, having many holes—though unlike in the cheese, these holes are continually opening, shutting, and shifting their location. The presence of holes in any one “slice” does not normally cause a bad outcome. Usually, this can happen only when the holes in many layers momentarily line up to permit a trajectory of accident opportunity.”


Safer Airports 

Performance-based regulation

As the safety culture continues to evolve in Canadian airport operations, safety management will be further developed by airport operators and industry professionals, rather than solely top-down by the regulator. A collaborative approach, whereby airport operators are utilizing the quality assurance process as an opportunity to learn from its advisors, will be crucial to further systemic improvements in safety culture.

As the industry evolves, the regulator has taken a more risk-based approach to oversight, with enhanced monitoring and additional oversight. In demonstrating a proactive approach to regulatory compliance, airport operators can effectively lower their risk profile with the regulator, allowing regulatory oversight resources to be redeployed to a higher-risk operations, with the system becoming safer as a whole.


Creating a learning culture

Perhaps the most important element of creating safer airports is building and maintaining a learning culture. Safety audits are a non-punitive environment — an opportunity to learn and continuously improve. It’s about creating a culture that embraces ongoing re-examination of safety practices and thrives on the chance to make tweaks.

Airport safety management presents opportunities to identify resource gaps, safeguard and share institutional knowledge and make the case for necessary investments. Often, the recommendations made are about proactive and preventative maintenance, and process development. As with any other pursuit, this commitment to constant learning and improvement keeps raising the standard of excellence. Investing these hours of intensive, behind-the-scenes prevention work has built an outstanding safety reputation for the industry — and has doubtless prevented many safety incidents from ever arising in the first place.

Joe Mackey
Aviation Planning and Advisory Lead
Dan Fox
Senior Regulatory Programs Specialist, Aviation

Co Author: Steve Jordan - Senior Regulatory Programs Specialist, Aviation
Reviewer: Michael Lucking - Senior Regulatory Programs Specialist, Aviation

To learn more about how aviation experts can deliver value for your organization, please visit our Airport Regulatory Programs page or contact Joe Mackay.