06 September 2009

Social Media's Role in Airline Safety

Dr. Todd Curtis of the AirSafe.com Foundation will present the paper "Social Media, Bird Strikes, and Aviation Safety Policy" at the upcoming 2009 Bird Strike North America Conference in Victoria, Canada the week of 13 September 2009. The following excerpt of the abstract gives a good overview of what to expect:

When many bird strike related organizations first launched their web site, that was about all the online presence that was needed. However, with the rise of the use of social media technology that allows users to tailor how they find and use information, having a web site is no longer enough. Many of the most useful tools in the social media arena are relatively simple to use, often free, and can greatly expand the ability of an organization to reach an online audience.

For those of you who will not be in Victoria for the conference, Dr. Curtis and the AirSafe.com Foundation will provide information online, including podcasts, videos, presentation slides, and other materials that will allow those of you in the bird strike and wildlife hazard community, as well as others in the aviation safety community, to benefit from the presentation.

The first of these online resources is the Conversation at AirSafe.com podcast "Social Media's Role in Airline Safety." In this show, Dr. Todd Curtis discusses the role that social media applications like Twitter, YouTube, and podcasts have had in shaping the public's relationship to aviation safety issues. Using the example of the January 2009 ditching of a US Airways aircraft in the Hudson River, the show discusses why any organization that intends to influence aviation safety policy or the aviation safety community should embrace these emerging technologies in order to better serve their members and the general public.

You can listen to the podcast at http://www.airsafe.com/podcasts/show96-social-media.mp3, and review the full transcript, as well as follow links to a number of supporting resources, at the AirSafe.com News.

28 July 2009

NTSB Determines that Pelican Caused 2009 OKC Crash

28 July 2009, Washington, DC:
The National Transportation Safety Board today determined that the probable cause of the 2008 crash in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, of a Cessna 500 (Citation) was airplane wing-structure damage sustained during impact with one or more large birds (American white pelicans), which resulted in a loss of control of the airplane.

"While the Board has determined that it was the bird strike that brought down this airplane," said Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker, "this investigation also uncovered improper and noncompliant charter operations that should have been identified and discontinued by the FAA."

On March 4, 2008, at approximately 3:15 p.m. (CST), a Cessna 500, registered to Southwest Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Clinic PC of Oklahoma City, entered a steep descent and crashed about 2 minutes after takeoff from Wiley Post Airport (PWA) in Oklahoma City. Both pilots and the three passengers were killed and the airplane was destroyed by impact forces and postcrash fire.

Major safety issues identified by this accident investigation focus on airframe certification standards for bird strikes, inadequate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enforcement of wildlife hazard assessment requirements for airports located near wildlife attractants, the lack of published information regarding operational strategies for pilots to minimize bird-strike damage to aircraft, and inadequate FAA detection of and intervention in improper charter operations.

As a result of its investigation, the NTSB issued 10 recommendations to the FAA and reiterated 1 previously issued recommendation.

Among the recommendations, the NTSB urged the FAA to revise bird-strike certification requirements for transport category (14 Code of Regulations Part 25) airplanes so that protection from in-flight impact with birds is consistent across all airframe structures. Other recommendations in this area include calling for more stringent verification of airport wildlife hazard assessments and reporting of wildlife strikes.

To correct the shortcomings uncovered in this investigation regarding federal oversight of aircraft charter operations, the NTSB wants the FAA to explore and implement strategies to improve on-site inspector surveillance activities at airports and of flight operations to detect and deter improper charter operations. The NTSB urged the FAA not only to require pilots to identify in the flight plan the operator and the operating rules under which the flight is operated, but also require the operator to provide its customers with written documentation that identifies the terms of carriage.

The reiterated safety recommendation, initially issued in 2006, urges the FAA to require aircraft equipped with a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) to be functionally tested before the first flight of each day and to perform a periodic maintenance check of the CVR.

A synopsis of the accident investigation report, including the findings, probable cause, and safety recommendations, can be found on the Board Meetings page of the NTSB's website, http://www.ntsb.gov/events/Boardmeeting.htm. The complete report will be available on the website in several weeks.

Cessna Citation Information
Bird Strike Committee USA

27 April 2009

Use Google Alerts to Find Bird and Wildlife Strike News Stories

When the FAA proposed to severely restrict the public's access to the FAA's bird and wildlife strike database in March 2009, it ignited controversy as well as hundreds of news stories related to the proposed policy change. When the DOT and the FAA reversed course the following month, it led to hundreds of other articles, many of them focusing on the strike record of specific airports and airlines.

This spike in interest represented an opportunity to increase AirSafe.com's audience by using the media coverage to direct people to bird and wildlife strike information on AirSafe.com's web sites and blogs.

The key was that many of these articles allowed readers to leave comments. AirSafe.com left comments on many of these articles, making sure that the comments invited the reader to visit an AirSafe.com related site.

Finding the articles was particularly easy, with the most important tool being Google Alerts, a free service that allows you tell Google to search for recently published content that contain specific keywords of interest.

The full plan to take advantage of the sudden public attention had three parts:

1. Use Google Alerts to find out what news stories were coming out online (in this case, the search terms [+faa +"bird strike"] were used).

2. Find the articles with the largest potential audience and either post comments to the article (always mentioning at least one of my bird strike blogs or sites).

3. If an article from a medium to large media organization had contact information for the writer of the story, I'd make a point to contact that person by phone or email and offer to provide information or answer questions.

By letting Google do my research for me, I was able to easily find dozens of opportunities to post comments to articles and use those posts to direct readers to some of my resources. In addition, I also found relevant media contacts that I could help or that could help me later.

Each of AirSafe.com's comments were a variation of the following message:

Releasing the data was the right thing to do on the part of the FAA. The right thing to do on the part of the public is to use the data as a way to understand a problem and not as the final answer.

Keep in mind that the FAA bird strike database is voluntary, so you can't just look at the raw numbers. Aggressive reporting is only one reason why there may be many reports in the database from a particular airport or airline.

Aviation organizations like the AirSafe.com Foundation offer many insights into how one should approach aviation safety data. Many of their bird strike examples are at birds.airsafe.org and strikevideos.blogspot.com.

It's not too late to do this kind of thing for your web site or blog. Whether it is for bird strikes or for something else, if you have a blog or web site that needs a boost, and there is a major media frenzy that is relevant to your site or blog, try this three step marketing method yourself. Even if you don't place comments, it is an excellent way to identify reporters that you may want to approach later.

23 April 2009

Response to a Bird Strike Protection Idea

A reader responded to comment I made to a 23 April 2009 Washington Post article about the FAA opening up the bird strike database. A reader made a suggestion for a screen or grate that could be placed in front of engine intakes. My response will likely generate additional feedback from the visitors to this site.

Question: Couldn't you engineer a conical grate in front of the jet intake, like this:

      / ||
     / || intake
air flow --> \ ||
      \ ||

That way if a bird struck it wouldn't stay on the grate but roll off due to the air pressure.

Response: The kind of design you have may in fact be effective. However, one must look at the effect that this kind of system in place on an aircraft. Weight, extra maintenance, and design costs are only the beginning. On the other hand, look at what this system would prevent. It may avert the rare serious accident that causes serious injury or death. For US airlines, in the last half century the number of passenger airliners involved in bird strikes that caused serious injury or death has been exactly two (assuming the system worked as designed), and that includes the US Airways ditching in January. Given the rarity of a fatal bird strike event, and especially in the absence of a relatively recent and spectacular fatal event, any suggested change that involves a new design for the entire airliner fleet would not likely be accepted by the FAA.

Any suggested change in aircraft design or procedures would have to survive the regulatory process, which includes the kinds of cost effectiveness issues like the one I just implied. It wouldn't be a situation of a change being rejected because of costs, but rather a rejection based on whether it were not as cost effective as other alternatives.

03 April 2009

Why the FAA Should Not Block Access to Bird Strike Data

In March 2009, the FAA quietly made a stunning proposal to make it nearly impossible for the public to access a vital aviation safety resource. Since 1990, the FAA's National Wildlife Strike Database has been one of the most important tools for understanding bird and wildlife strike risks to aircraft. With over 100,0000 records, this database has the potential to benefit everyone who flies by giving the aviation safety community and the general public the opportunity to analyze that data in order to discover ways to reduce the threats to aircraft caused by birds and other wildlife. The FAA states several concerns about the database, but none of their arguments support their proposal to block public access to the data.

The FAA admits that over the last 19 years they have collected and used this data to improve safety. One of their concerns with the current database is that there is a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter.

This argument only makes sense if the FAA assumes that there is no way to counter an argument based on a biased or incompetent analysis. This is not the case at all. The tools needed to analyze aviation safety data are widely available. If an analysis is unfair or incorrect it should be easy to review the assumptions, the data, the analysis, and determine whether the conclusions were justified.

Another part of the FAA's argument to make this database unavailable to the public is that when the FAA began collecting this data, it assured the entities submitting the data that the submissions would not be made available to the public. While that may have been true 19 years ago, it apparently hasn't been the case for at least the past 12 years The current online submission form and the paper wildlife strike report forms available since at least 1997 made no such promises of secrecy.

In the proposal, the FAA states releasing this information without benefit of proper analysis would not only produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines but also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between airports and airlines.

The concern of the FAA is clearly not for individual submitters, since they already redact this kind of personal information from the database. Their concerns appear to be for the reputation of airports and airlines. More importantly, this argument implies that the FAA has the attitude that the public doesn't have the ability to properly analyze the data. It's true that the process of asking and answering aviation safety questions can be an extremely difficult task even for aviation safety experts. It's probably true that if most members of the media or the general public attempt to analyze this bird strike data they may come to conclusions that may unfairly highlight an airline or airport. However, this possibility should not be the FAA's concern. The FAA has many roles, but passing judgment on the ability of the public to scrutinize data is not one of them.

The FAA in their proposal states that it is imperative that nothing should stifle flow of information into this database. However, their proposed action will do exactly that. For aviation safety data to be useful, the flow of information has to go in two directions, not just one. Cutting off the pubic from this information makes it less likely that the aviation safety community will learn from the experiences of others and use that knowledge to enhance safety.

The FAA can and should take steps to ensure the privacy of individuals who voluntarily submit safety data. However, protecting airports and airlines from the potential embarrassment of unfair or incompetent data analysis is not a valid reason to close public access to the database. The database exists in part to help prevent accidents and to help save lives. Putting a wall around this database may help to enhance the public's opinion of airlines and airports, but it will not help protect the public from risk. If the FAA's goal is to save lives then the database should remain available to the public, and they should not be allowed to implement their proposed changes.

The public has an opportunity to make its voice heard on this issue. In an upcoming post, AirSafe.com will give you step-by-step instructions from submitting your comments prior to the close of the public comment period on 20 April 2009. AirSafe.com will follow this issue closely, and in the next few days will provide detailed guidance on how to submit your comments to the FAA and prevent this policy change. If you have not done so already, please subscribe to the AirSafe.com mailing list or get AirSafe.com Twitter updates to keep up to date on this critical issue.

FAA Proposal to Change Database Access
Background Information on Bird Strike Threats
Bird Strike Committee USA

04 March 2009

Social Media, Bird Strikes, and Aviation Safety Policy

The January 2009 ditching of the US Airways flight in the Hudson River in New York was an excellent example of how social media applications like Twitter and YouTube affect how the public finds out information about plane crashes and other aviation safety related events.

While the accident took place on the doorstep of the most important media center of the United States, many of the early images of the crash and the rescue that were distributed by major media outlets originated from witnesses. One of the most well known one was from a cell phone camera of Janis Krums, who was on one of the ferry boats involved in the recovery of the passengers. The picture was uploaded from his iPhone to TwitPic, a service that allows Twitter users to upload photos (see photo on TwitPic).

Twitter was not the only social media application working overtime that day. Video sharing sites like YouTube were flooded with many examples of user-generated content that collectively had hundreds of thousands of views within a day.

I'd certainly argue that if social media applications like Twitter didn't exist, a plane crash in New York would still get massive amounts of attention from major media. However, the "Miracle on the Hudson" was also an excellent example of how the average eyewitness can easily distribute images and other newsworthy information that could reach tens of thousands in a matter of minutes.

Until recently, one of the few options for publishing content online was through a web site. AirSafe.com participated in the January 1999 launch of the Bird Strike Committee USA web site Birdstrike.org. One of the stated purposes was to have the site act as a resource for the media and the general public, especially if there were a dramatic event such as a bird strike related crash. To serve that end, the site's content included extensive contact information for many of the key members of the Committee.

In the early years of the web, the key way that users would locate information was through a search engine. Because the site had been active for many years, and because the content included many of the popular search terms for bird strike issues, the site was often among the top results for many bird and wildlife strike related search terms. Because of this, major media organizations were able to find basic information about bird strikes and to contact many of the key Committee members, and as a result many of these members were able to provide insights and information to a broad audience in the hours after the crash.

It used to be that an organization was doing a good job getting its message out online if it had a solid web site and if content from that site was in the top results of relevant searches on Google or other search engines. This approach is no longer sufficient. It is necessary to go beyond web sites and search engines because an increasing number of online users are using technology to develop different kinds of ongoing relationship with other users, with information, and with organizations.

For an example of the differences, one just needs to look at the online realities of two New York area plane crashes, TWA Flight 800 and the recent Hudson River ditching involving US Airways. Flight 800 happened in July 1996, just two weeks after AirSafe.com was launched. While there were search engines, Google did not yet exist. Major media web sites, were the most important sources of information for news about the crash. There was no YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, Flickr, or any other easy to use social media related technologies for sharing photos, videos, and other information with large numbers of people. Email was certainly widely available, but it was mostly a way to communicate with individuals or small groups, not a way to communicate with thousands at a time. While I did my best to add independent information about the crash to AirSafe.com, it had only a tiny impact. Traffic went from about 35 visits on the day before the event to about 700 visits the day of the crash.

In contrast, within minutes of the US Airways A320 ditching in the Hudson, there were thousands of people around the world who were contacting each other on Twitter, uploading videos to YouTube, and photos to Flickr. True, much of it was simply copied from traditional news organizations, but some of it was both original and unique. In many cases, traditional media relied on the public for information rather than the other way around. By the way, traffic on AirSafe.com was a bit higher in 2009 than it was in 1996, with about 12,000 web site visits on the day of the event, plus at least 5,000 views or downloads of AirSafe.com's initial podcast about the event.

The changing nature of the Internet, and the dramatic rise in the importance of newer social media applications, make it necessary for organizations like Bird Strike Committee USA to expand its relationship with the Internet. Fortunately for the Committee, there are many examples of social media use that can be followed, and most of them require no up front or ongoing costs. Perhaps the most pressing needs are in the following areas:

1. A review of existing web site policies and content to ensure that the site continues to rank well for key wildlife hazard related search terms.

2. Development of Bird Strike Committee USA policy for the use of evolving social media applications, in order to use those applications to better coordinate public education and public outreach efforts.

3. Encouraging the use of these same social media technologies among the organizations that support the work of the Committee.

While the early development of an informative web site was an innovation that put Bird Strike Committee USA well ahead of similarly structured aviation safety organizations, recent events have highlighted the fact that adopting at least some of the newer social media technologies is essential if Bird Strike Committee USA is to maintain its relatively high online profile.

12 February 2009

Bird Strike Testing on an Engine

A short clip of bird strike tests on an engine, including slow motion and closeup views of strikes on fan blades. The engine appears to be one of the larger engines such as the types used on the A380 or 777.