Risk analysis : an official publication of the Society for Risk Analysis | 28 Oct 2015
P Madsen, RL Dillon and CH Tinsley
In recent years, the U.S. commercial airline industry has achieved unprecedented levels of safety, with the statistical risk associated with U.S. commercial aviation falling to 0.003 fatalities per 100 million passengers. But decades of research on organizational learning show that success often breeds complacency and failure inspires improvement. With accidents as rare events, can the airline industry continue safety advancements? This question is complicated by the complex system in which the industry operates where chance combinations of multiple factors contribute to what are largely probabilistic (rather than deterministic) outcomes. Thus, some apparent successes are realized because of good fortune rather than good processes, and this research intends to bring attention to these events, the near-misses. The processes that create these near-misses could pose a threat if multiple contributing factors combine in adverse ways without the intervention of good fortune. Yet, near-misses (if recognized as such) can, theoretically, offer a mechanism for continuing safety improvements, above and beyond learning gleaned from observable failure. We test whether or not this learning is apparent in the airline industry. Using data from 1990 to 2007, fixed effects Poisson regressions show that airlines learn from accidents (their own and others), and from one category of near-misses-those where the possible dangers are salient. Unfortunately, airlines do not improve following near-miss incidents when the focal event has no clear warnings of significant danger. Therefore, while airlines need to and can learn from certain near-misses, we conclude with recommendations for improving airline learning from all near-misses.
* Data courtesy of Altmetric.com