Aviation safety is not necessarily a numbers game

A Dutch newspaper recently labelled Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport the ‘record holder for dangerous incidents’ after comparing numbers of runway incursions reported at airports of similar size. This immediately prompted politicians demanding explanations. Whilst the article itself covered only runway incursions, that headline does give food for thought about comparing aviation safety records.

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Aviation safety comparisons

There are two issues worth reviewing:

  • When are airports comparable?
  • Does a simple number of incidents, even when presented as a rate per so-many movements, accurately measure safety?


Starting with the second question, the answer is unequivocally no. The number of incidents reported at airports as concerned with aviation safety as Schiphol is more often an indicator of the health of their reporting culture than anything else. A ratio of incidents to total movements is an important KPI. However, it is merely the starting point for proper safety analysis.

The answer to the first question is a somewhat qualified no. Comparisons are possible, of course. However, the diversity of variables amongst airports – even of similar size – makes drawing meaningful conclusions from such limited data impossible.

More incidents, or more reporting?

In the late 1990s, before runway safety received the attention it deserves, runway incursions reporting was scarce. The same is true for unruly passengers. The data shows very few reports before 2000. After that, airlines and airports began paying more attention to, and reporting on, these incidents.

Such newspaper articles attempt to infer that airport safety is directly related to the number of incidents reported. This gives, at best, an incomplete picture and can even, at worst, be downright misleading. At Schiphol, the airport authority, air traffic service provider and the national airlines all employ robust and open safety reporting systems that exceed minimum European safety requirements. Dutch aviation professionals have been working since the mid-2000s to encourage reporting and develop the ‘just culture’ that provides reduced risks of public prosecution for those making honest mistakes.

Ranking airports on safety is also more complex than a simple chart based on a single metric. Does the number, or even orientation, of runways used affect the comparison? Shouldn’t we consider the mix of traffic – large commercial airplanes, general aviation, helicopters, military aviation, etc. – requiring different handling? What about incident severity? Very few runway incursions at Schiphol carried a high risk.

Reporting is critical to safety

Clearly, both the health of the reporting culture and the unique characteristics of an airport play a role in how safe its operations are. Any organisation claiming never to have incidents, even low-risk ones, likely has no idea what is really going on. That is dangerous.

Whilst we certainly empathise with the public relations and management teams tasked with protecting their brand in the face of inflammatory headlines, we would urge all to remember that a healthy culture of incident reporting is inarguably so much more important for the actual safety of both passengers and personnel.

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. To achieve this, policy and business decisions have to be based on objective information. With our diverse team of specialists and generalists to70 provides pragmatic solutions and expert advice, based on high-quality data-driven analyses. For more information, please refer to www.to70.com.

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