(Note: This article was originally published on November 12, 2020).

Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) 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 FDM are now suddenly becoming required to make an FDM program part of their Safety Management System (SMS) if they want to expand operations to these parts of the world.

What is Flight Data Monitoring?

Flight Data Monitoring goes by many names. One of the most common is FOQA, (pronounced pho-kwa), but some other acronyms you may see include:
  • FDA: Flight Data Analysis.
  • 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 FDM? There are a number of very good definitions of Flight Data Monitoring, but one of the best comes from 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,”

One of the nice things about this particular definition is that it highlights some of the additional benefits of routinely monitoring flight data besides safety. While improving operational safety was the main reason for the introduction of FDM programs, this definition extends to the safety of the full aircraft operations “system”.

What it’s Not

It is important to take a moment to discuss what Flight Data Monitoring is not. FDM is not, nor was it ever meant to be, a punitive program. Governing bodies realize the safety benefits of FDM 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 (see our blog on data de-identification). Cases of pilots being punished as a result solely of data discovered as part of a Flight Data Monitoring program are extremely rare.

Why Bother?

So, why should we bother having an FDM program? The first (and probably the weakest) reason is that you may have to due to regulations within the countries you are flying. It is not the best reason, but over the years we have seen plenty of operators that only run a program because they have to. These operators have really been let down by their service or software vendor for failing to demonstrate the benefits available to them.

It is normally the smaller operators that think they are “too small” to benefit from an FDM 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. It is certainly true that they will not have as much statistical data to analyze as a larger airline would, but programs such as our Global Data Sharing program are trying to change that. But there are also 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
    • Arrival/approach procedure issues
  • Identifying and improving aircraft SOP issues by reviewing flight data in consultation with the manufacturer.
  • Monitoring aircraft performance
    • Identify 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.

Once operators start looking at their flight data, they find many more uses for it on their own based on their own requirements. Once an operator is used to working with their flight data, it is not uncommon to hear questions that begin with, “Can we look at…”

The costs of running an FDM program today are also much lower than ever and the technology is better than ever. With the added safety benefits of Flight Data Monitoring, there really is no reason why an operator should not make use of the data that is already available.


How Does It Work?

We will post some future articles that go through these steps in more detail, but at a high level, an FDM program can be considered to consist of the following steps:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Service vs “In House” Systems

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” Flight Data Monitoring 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 are proud to be one of the few Flight Data Analysis companies that offers both a Flight Data Monitoring Service as well as a Software as a Service (SaaS) option for those requiring an in house system. For smaller operators, the cost savings of a service-based solution can be significant compared to that of an in-house program, making service an attractive option.

But for larger operators, a cloud-based in house SaaS solution can also provide dramatic cost savings compared to more traditional systems due to the significantly reduced infrastructure costs, not to mention the added benefits that come with using more advanced technology. And these benefits can all be experienced while still keeping all of the flight data expertise “in house”.


Getting More Information

We’ve include some links to some valuable resources below. If you need further information or have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below or contact us at info@scaledanalytics.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.)

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