Aviation Safety & Risk Management

Safety is of paramount importance in aviation, especially commercial aviation.

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Technical malfunction, equipment failure, and human error in complex technological fields can result in catastrophic failure. In commercial aviation, the implications of catastrophic failure are exceptionally devastating, because they almost always entail great risk to human life and limb. The nature of aviation equipment, facilities, and infrastructure virtually guarantee that even failure that does not necessarily result in harm to human life still harbors the potential for disastrous financial losses.

Risk management in commercial aviation consists of mitigation strategies designed to ensure both operational compliance with statutory federal regulations as well as to address specific potential risks that are particular to individual commercial aviation entities to manage elements of risks not subject to regulatory standards, but crucial to safety, nevertheless.

Acceptable risk mitigation is determined primarily by the magnitude of harm associated with identifiable risks, both by themselves as well as in relation to their relative likelihood of occurrence. Certain degrees of harm are high enough to require procedures that guarantee a near-zero likelihood of occurrence, while others are appropriately addressed by formulas balancing the costs and benefits of assigning those risks to third parties.

Ultimately, risk management in commercial aviation must include specific components sufficient to identify and evaluate them in combination with elements capable of ensuring their effective implementation and post-implementation re-evaluation and adjustment to address any conceivable deficiencies or initial oversight.


Virtually all human endeavors entail risks, whether to life and limb, long-term health, financial concerns, or social relationships. The importance of effective risk management is proportional to the extent of potential loss, the likelihood of its occurrence, and cost of managing those risks in proportion to the magnitude of their potential consequences.

Industries that affect many people and those where the fundamental nature of the foreseeable consequences of risks inherent to the industry are so grievous in their magnitude as to require the highest standard of management. For this reason, risks associated with the integrity of architectural infrastructure and mass transportation are among the most heavily regulated for compliance with safety concerns and the procedures intended to minimize their likelihood as well as the consequences of their occurrence when preventative efforts fail.

Aviation in particular demands the highest level of coordinated risk recognition, assessment, and mitigation, precisely because the nature of the industry involves multiple inherent grievous risks to human life and property at virtually every operational stage.

In addition to risks to those directly involved in or served by the industry, the nature of commercial aviation and transport extends far beyond, to include both people and property with absolutely no connection to the industry. The most catastrophic bridge or transportation tunnel collapse directly threatens only those actually benefiting from the infrastructure affected at the time of the failure. Even hydroelectric dams, whose catastrophic failure have the proven potential to destroy entire communities in their vicinity, threaten only specific populations known in advance to be within the range of the risks known to be associated with hydroelectric facilities. Aviation is unique in the vast numbers of those susceptible to its operational risks purely at random and without any connection in advance to the industry.

Risk Management in Commercial Aviation:

Risk management in commercial aviation safety consists of six essential components:

initiation of the risk management process; preliminary risk analysis; identification and evaluation of specific risks; procedural risk control development; implementation and post-implementation monitoring and follow up.

Process Initiation and Preliminary Analysis:

Generally, risk management starts with executive decisions to initiate the risk management process in conjunction with commissioning a preliminary analysis of specific risks. In the case of aviation in general, and commercial aviation in particular, federal regulation already prescribes strict compliance with specific standards for managing the myriad known risks inherent in commercial aviation safety.

Within the legal requirements imposed and administrated by the Federal Aviation

Administration (FAA), commercial aviation enterprises maintain independent responsibility for establishing comprehensive risk management protocols. Likewise, federal guidelines already incorporate the major classes of known safety risks inherent to aviation, but commercial airline carriers maintain independent responsibility for analyzing specific risks particular to their functions, facilities, equipment, personnel, and operations (USFAA, 2005).

Specific Risk Identification and Evaluation:

Identification of specific risks begins with the collection of all information available to characterize and describe potential situations and occurrences that represent addressable risks of harm or hazards. The nature of specific hazards includes the full range of conditions, objects, and/or activities capable of injuring personnel, damaging equipment or facilities, causing the destruction or waste of resources, or compromising the entity’s capacity for optimal operational efficiency and profitability (Transport Canada, 2007).

Evaluation of specific risks entails the comprehensive analysis of all identified risks of potential hazards within a risk matrix that outlines any a priori assumptions and accounts for the interrelationship between and among initial assumptions, relevant issues including and possible complications and constraints to specific strategies for managing identified safety risks operationally (UKCAA, 2006).

Procedural Development and Implementation of Risk Control:

The purpose of a comprehensive risk matrix is to allow risk managers to assign a risk hierarchy by relative degrees of importance as a function of their likelihood of occurrence in relation to their magnitude of potential harm. The relative risk hierarchy identifies risks that require appropriate mitigation procedures regardless of the financial commitment required, and distinguishes them from risks whose mitigation allows more room for economic considerations (UKCAA, 2006).

Risk control procedures are implemented in hierarchical order and in relation to available resources and known complications and constraints previously identified in Risk

Evaluation phase of risk management. In principle, the highest level of risks represented on the risk matrix are those that may actually determine the financial viability of a commercial aviation enterprise in that they are not amenable to anything but the necessary financial commitment required to achieve near-zero probability (UKCAA, 2006).

Generally, this level of attention applies to risks – even those of relatively low probability of occurrence – associated with loss of life and limb. Lower classes of risks represented on the risk matrix are those that are amenable to the standard formulas used by underwriters to balance the likelihood of harm with the financial benefits of assigning the responsibility for their reimbursement to third party insurers without violating public policy.

Procedural Monitoring and Post-Implementation Follow-up:

Procedural monitoring of risk management operations following their initial implementation and regularly thereafter is a comprehensive retrospective analog of all the other components of risk management. Monitoring provides a mechanism for identifying the effectiveness of procedures intended to mitigate risks as designed, as well as for evaluating the need for adjustment or reevaluation of operational procedures where deficiencies are apparent only in retrospect (USDAFS, 2005).

In many respects, optimal operational effectiveness and optimal efficiency of risk management programs are goals that are all but impossible to achieve before the first generation of program implementation. This is true, in principle, of all highly complex technical industries, but particularly those affected by the interrelationship of as many variables as are inherent to commercial aviation. Procedural monitoring of the relative success, costs, and complications associated with specific operational risk mitigation strategies enables risk managers to adjust and refine procedures and to redress any inadequacies or oversights in the initial risk analysis and previously implemented strategies.

By definition, retrospective element-by-element evaluation and analysis of every component of highly complex, multi-variable risk management programs is necessary to address unforeseeable complications, initial oversights, faulty assumptions, unanticipated constraints, and other operational limitations that are capable of compromising the success of even carefully-designed risk management programs.


Complex human technological ventures entail risks defined by the nature of their respective fields. On the scale of risk management priorities, those that demand the strictest attention and highest degree of compliance with appropriate mitigation strategies are those whose inherent risks include potential harm to life and limb, those whose inherent risks include potential harm to many rather than few, and those whose inherent risks include very significant financial consequences associated with their occurrence. Commercial aviation, therefore, warrants the highest attention to risk management, precisely by virtue of the obvious risks to life and limb first, and devastating financial consequences of materialized risks associated with commercial aviation operations.

Designing and implementing a comprehensive risk management program entails specific components to identify potential risks, evaluate their likelihood of occurrence, the magnitude of harm associated with them, and the interrelationship of their statistical likelihood and extent of potential harm they represent. Program implementation is, in many ways, merely the first step in a long-term comprehensive safety strategy for effective and economical risk mitigation, precisely because the complexities of risk management in commercial aviation.

Consequently, post-implementation procedural monitoring and regular follow-up are necessary to ensure proper redress of any operational oversights and inadequacies, especially those that come to light only retrospectively after initial program implementation. In this regard, statutory requirements are merely the first level of risk management strategy, and supplemental considerations, independently-initiated analyses, and monitoring play an equally important role in ensuring the safety of commercial aviation operations.


Transport Canada (2007). Canadian Aviation Regulations. Accessed October 27, 2007, at http://www.tc.gc.ca/civilaviation/risk/menu.htm

U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (2006). The CAA Risk Management Process. Accessed October 27, 2007, at http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=978&pagetype=90&pageid=279

U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (2005) Safety Risk Management.

Accessed October 27, 2007, at http://www.faa.gov/library/manuals/aviation/risk_management/

U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (2005).

Aviation Safety Center. Risk Management; Accessed October 27, 2007, at: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/av_safety/risk_mgt/index.html