On a mountain ridge west of Tokyo, in rural Gunma prefecture, sits a shrine dedicated to the 520 lives lost in the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123 nearly forty years ago. That accident — of a domestic-configuration Boeing 747 carrying over 500 people — remains aviation’s deadliest involving a single aircraft, and stemmed from the incorrect repair of a tailstrike some seven years earlier.
The investigation and response to the crash spurred safety improvements, perhaps the most visible of which are Safety Promotion Centers, conceived by Japan Airlines in the 2000s and now spreading across the industry. In a striking irony, JAL’s Safety Promotion Center is located between the two runways of Haneda Airport in Tokyo, where the airline’s flight 516 collided with a Coast Guard De Havilland Canada Dash 8 on 2 January 2024.
Even well into a second decade as an aviation journalist writing regularly about aviation safety and certification, watching that crash and its aftermath unfurl live in high definition was gut-wrenching. The experience was a jarring juxtaposition with the delivery in Toulouse less than a month ago of Japan Airlines’ first stretched Airbus A350-1000 aircraft, its new international flagship — at which, for full disclosure, this journalist was a guest of the manufacturer.
Compounding the ironies, just prior to that delivery event Airbus toured media around its own Safety Promotion Center, opened in early 2023 and “inspired by Japan Airlines”, as the commemorative opening plaque reads.
The Safety Promotion Center is a sobering experience, from the hard-hitting introductory film showing the very human impacts of airline disasters to the graphs and statistics that draw clear lines from incidents to safety improvements made as the result of accident investigation recommendations. It spans three “chapters” of safety: “the evolution of flight safety”, “how we make safe aircraft”, and “working together to enhance safety”.
Presenting the center to media, Nicolas Bardou, Airbus’ product safety communication and aircraft accident crisis response advisor, explained that it’s “dedicated to our employees to promote safety culture, and to remember that 3,456 people lost their lives in an Airbus aircraft.”
Bardou highlighted that, for the staff-focussed center, “the aim is to have an impact, and for them to realise what really happens when there is an accident, and how they can work to avoid them.
Every single Airbus fatal accident since the company’s airplanes started flying in 1972 is displayed on a large graph, from the first runway excursion of an A300 during a training flight in 1987 at Luxor in Egypt, to the runway incursion of a fire truck at Lima in Peru — the most recent as of last December during the visit. Much of this information is also provided online via Airbus’ accident statistics microsite.
The center shows clearly the process of investigation, as well as Airbus’ role as the manufacturer, but also the roles of the rest of the industry in ensuring safety. This includes technical groups and suppliers, including for engines, landing gear, equipment, systems and structures, with the center noting that these number more than 12,000 globally, given that “up to 80% of our aircraft are made of supplied parts”.
The network of individual actors making up a safe aviation system is also presented, from training organisations, national aviation authorities, and the International Civil Aviation Organization through to airlines & pilots associations, airports, air traffic control and investigation boards. Within this, the role of safe operations is highlighted, including airlines, maintenance organisations, ground servicing companies and continuing airworthiness organisations.
The overall goal, as Airbus’ presentation puts it, “is to prevent accidents and incidents and not to apportion blame or liability”, and “to support the official investigation to avoid recurrence”.
Throughout the center, there is a clear focus on the role of every employee, including information sharing, cooperation, connection, and values — plus emphasis on important systems and standards like Safety Management Systems — as well as instructions on how to report safety issues. Notably, there is also a strong presence from leadership, with handwritten messages on the wall from chief executive officer Guillaume Faury and a display presenting the company’s Commitment to Just and Fair Culture for Product Safety and Quality, signed by sixteen members of senior management.
Within the center, Airbus highlights how the industry-wide approach to safety has made commercial flight the very safest way to travel — “on safe aircraft, safely operated, in a safe air transport system,” as the center’s displays state.
As the first hull loss of the new generation of composite airliners, the JAL 516 incident is certain to result in an enormous amount of immensely valuable safety information when it comes to the performance of carbon-fibre reinforced polymers as the primary aircraft structure.
“I was an accident investigator for fifteen years and I investigated some of them,” Bardou said at the center. “In every one, we had lessons learned — we have to learn lessons from every accident.”
Safety Promotion Centers are, of course, not a panacea for aviation safety. Boeing’s Safety Promotion Center, also inspired by Japan Airlines’, opened in 2017, almost a year before the crash of Lion Air flight 610 and the beginning of the 737 MAX saga reignited in the past week by the decompression and emergency landing of Alaska Airlines flight 1282.
Their geographical reach is also inherently limited: Airbus’ is in Toulouse, Boeing’s is in Everett, and many employees — let alone suppliers — are located thousands of miles away.
But they can be an incredibly useful part of the safety picture — to introduce and reinforce safety culture, as a demonstration of top-down commitment to quality and safety, as a way to embed safety across an organisation — within an industry dedicated to safety.
Airbus provided travel and accommodation in Toulouse for this journalist as part of a delivery event, from which some of this reporting stems.
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Featured image credited to John Walton