Social media is changing aviation safety

You may ask, how do I sustain that statement? Well, it’s not so difficult. My perspective that of one who spent years, decades in-fact, digging through accident, incident, and occurrence reports, following them up and trying to make sense of the direction aviation safety was taking.

In the 1990s, the growth of digital technology was seen as a huge boon that would help safety professionals in every way. It was difficult to see a downside. Really comprehensive databases, search capabilities and computational tools made generating safety analysis reports much faster and simpler. Getting better information to key decision-makers surely contributed to an improvement in global aviation safety. It started the ball rolling on a move to a more performance-based form of safety regulation. That ball continues to roll slowly forward but the subject has proved to be not without difficulties.

Digging through paper-based reports, that overfilled in-trays, no longer stresses-out technical specialist quite the same as it did. Answers are more accessible and can reflect the real world of daily aircraft operations. Well, that is the theory, at least. As is often the case with an expansion of a technical capability, this can lead to more questions and higher demands for accuracy, coverage, and veracity. It’s a dynamic situation.

Where data becomes public, media attention is always drawn to passenger aircraft accidents and incidents. The first questions are always about what and where it happened. A descriptive narrative. Not long after those questions comes: how and why it happened. The speed at which questions arise often depends on the severity of the event. Unlike road traffic accidents, fatal aviation accidents always command newsprint column inches, airtime, and internet flurries.

Anyone trying to answer such urgent public questions will look for context. Even in the heat of the hottest moments, perspective matters. This is because, thankfully, fatal aviation accidents remain rare. When rare events occur, there can be a reasonable unfamiliarity with their characteristic and implications. We know that knee-jerk reactions can create havoc and often not address real causes.

In the past, access to the safety data needed to construct a context was not immediately available to all commers. Yes, the media often has its “go-to” people that can provide a quick but reliable analysis, but they were few and far between.

This puts the finger on one of the biggest changes in aviation safety in the 2020s. Now, everyone is an expert. The immediacy and speed at which information flows is entirely new. That can be photography and video content from a live event. Because of the compelling nature of pictures, this fuels speculation and theorising. A lot of this is purely ephemeral but it does catch the eye of news makers, politicians, and decision-makers.

So, has anyone studied the impact of social media on developments in aviation safety? Now, there’s a good topic for a thesis.

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