About This Series
This is the first in a series of posts about Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) or Flight Data Monitoring (FDM). FOQA is certainly nothing new, but as its safety benefits continue to become more realized, this recommended practice is quickly becoming mandatory in some parts of the world. As a result, operators that may not have been familiar with the concept of FOQA are now suddenly becoming required to make a FOQA program part of their Safety Management System (SMS) if they want to expand operations to these parts of the world. These blog posts are intended for those types of operators that need a “crash course” on FOQA. They describe how a typical program works, and how an operator might set up their own program.
A quick search of the Internet will reveal a wealth of information on FOQA. Some references are better than others (I include some recommended links at the bottom of this article). These posts are not meant to repeat that information but rather to summarize some the key points of FOQA while also going into some of the more specific details of how a typical program works.
What is FOQA?
Before I even get into the definition of FOQA, it is important to note that FOQA (pronounced pho-kwa) goes by many aliases. I already mentioned Flight Data Monitoring above, but you may also see the following acronyms:
- FDA: Flight Data Analysis. This is my least favorite of the bunch as FDA can apply to many data analysis activities besides routine operations, such as accident/incident investigation, flight testing, route optimization/scheduling, etc. However, it is still widely used to refer to FOQA/FDM.
- C-FOQA or CFOQA: Corporate FOQA. This is basically a FOQA program tailored for Corporate Aircraft/Business Jet operations.
- MFOQA: Military FOQA. A FOQA program tailored for the unique needs of military operations.
- MOQA: Maintenance Operations Quality Assurance. Utilizing aircraft flight data for the purposes of improving aircraft maintenance operations and, potentially, aircraft reliability.
- SOQA: Simulator Operations Quality Assurance. Applying FOQA concepts to simulator data for the purposes of improving crew training.
- HFDM: Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring. Helicopter specific FOQA. (For whatever reason, I have never seen HFOQA.)
So what is FOQA? There are a number of very good definitions of FOQA, but the best that I have found was in a Flight Safety Foundation report authored by John H. Enders in 1993:
“A Program for obtaining and analyzing data recorded in flight to improve flight crew performance, air carrier training programs and operating procedures, air traffic control procedures, airport maintenance and design, and aircraft operations and design,”
The main reason why I like this particular definition is that it highlights some of the additional benefits of routinely monitoring flight data. While improving operational safety was the main reason for the introduction of FOQA programs, this definition extends to the safety of the full aircraft operations “system”.
What it’s Not
Before moving on, it is important to note what FOQA is not. FOQA is not, nor was it ever, meant to be a punitive program. Governing bodies realize the safety benefits of FOQA and want to ensure the pilot community is on board. Some operators take the extra step of removing potentially identifiable information from the data to prevent the crew from being identified. Cases of pilots being punished as a result solely of data discovered as part of a Flight Data Monitoring program are extremely rare.
Now that we know what it is, why should we bother having a FOQA program? The first (and worst) reason is that you may have to due to regulations depending on where you are flying. I hate that reason. But over the years I have met many operators that only run a program because they have to. In my opinion, those operators have been let down by their service or software vendor for failing to demonstrate the benefits.
It is normally the smaller operators that think they are “too small” to benefit from a FOQA program. They feel this way because they think they only have a small fleet of aircraft and fly too infrequently to make statistical analysis of any benefit to them. While they may be correct in that statistical analysis is less beneficial to them as, say, a larger airline, there are many other benefits that can be realized by regularly monitoring flight data, such as:
- Identifying airport operational issues such as late landing clearances resulting in rushed approaches, persistent TCAS warnings and arrival/approach procedure issues.
- Identify and improve aircraft SOP issues by reviewing flight data in consultation with the manufacturer.
- Monitoring aircraft performance. Potentially identifying maintenance issues before they ground an aircraft.
- Maintenance troubleshooting. Use the available flight data to help pin point maintenance issues and return aircraft to service sooner.
In my experience, once operators start looking at their flight data, they find many more uses for the data on their own based on their own requirements. While I enjoy suggesting uses to my customers, the most interesting parts of working with flight data normally come after a customer asks, “Can we look at…”
The costs of running a FOQA program today are lower than ever and the technology is better than ever. With the added safety benefits of FOQA, there really is no reason why an operator should not make use of the data that is already available.
How Does It Work?
Future blog posts will go through these steps in more detail, but for this post, a FOQA program can be considered to consist of the following steps:
- Download the data from the aircraft. The data can be taken from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) or from a Quick Access Recorder (QAR). This is normally done through the use of a “download unit” or a laptop with special software and a special cable; however, some QAR manufacturers support wireless data transfer.
- Process the data in FOQA/FDM software. The data file recovered from the aircraft is then processed through specialized software. The software will first convert the raw 1’s and 0’s stored on the recorder into meaningful engineering units such as Airspeed and Altitude. Once that’s done, the software will sift through that data to identify any predefined “events” or “exceedences”.
- Analyze the results of data processing. Once the data has been validated, it is analyzed by a flight data analyst. The analyst may first “validate” the detected events to ensure no “false” events were picked up (this could be due to bad data, limitations in the software engine, etc.). The analyst would then review the statistical information collected to identify any unsafe trends.
- Make actionable decisions. While it is great to collect and sift through data, if we do not take any action based on our findings, then there is not much value to any program. The final step is to make actionable decisions based on that data to either improve in certain areas, or maintain your high safety standards. The action could be simply to continue doing what you are doing, but the data still needs to be reviewed to validate that decision.
Before moving on, it is worth noting that there are two main ways of accomplishing these steps listed above. The traditional method is to purchase specialized software (and the hardware to run it) identified in Step 2, hire an analyst (or a few) and set up a program on site. These programs are typically referred to as “In House” FOQA programs.
The second option is to utilize a service provider that delivers Flight Data Monitoring services on behalf of its customers. With a service program, the operator only needs to worry about Steps 1 and 4, while the service provider will handle Steps 2 and 3, providing analysis support to the Flight Safety Officer and taking care of the “heavy lifting”.
At Scaled Analytics, we only offer a FOQA service so I am obviously biased towards a FOQA service model. The cost savings for the operator can be significant compared to that of an in-house program, particularly for smaller operators. While there are still advantages to having software in-house, I see those advantages shrinking over the years as cloud computing continues to evolve and become more affordable, and we continue to rely on mobile devices for quick access to information.
Larger organizations with 20+ year old FOQA departments will be the slowest to transition from in-house programs, but newer operators, regardless of fleet size, would be wise to seriously consider a third party Flight Data Monitoring service – whether it is Scaled Analytics’ service or another service provider’s.
Getting More Information
If you have managed to make it this far, then you may be interested in more detailed information on FOQA and Flight Data Monitoring. Below are some resources that I have found particularly helpful. If you need further information or have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below or contact us at email@example.com.
UK CAA CAP 739 (One of the more referenced documents on Flight Data Monitoring)
European Union Regulations (Acceptable Means of Compliance to Part ORO)
FAA Advisory Circular on FOQA (AC No: 120-82)
IATA IOSA Standards Manual (ORG 3.3.13 references the requirements for a Flight Data Analysis program.)
Sky Analyst FDM is a modern, cloud-based Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) and FOQA service for event detection, reporting, and detailed analysis.
From medivac to off shore oil rig operations, the helicopter environment is quite specialized and requires a special Flight Data Monitoring program – Helicopter FDM or HFDM.
We know that as corporate operators you have different Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) or Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) requirements than airlines.