Safety in ATM - John Franklin - EASA

Picture of Vincent Lambercy
Posted by Vincent Lambercy

A lot of people say that aviation is safety first, but I recently heard a quote that is very interesting to me that says, service first, safety always, because safety should never come into question. And today we will speak a lot about safety. My guest is John Franklin, who is head of Safety promotion at EASA. My name is Vincent Lambercy, and this is one more episode of Radar Contact. John, welcome to the show.

Hi Vincent. Thanks for the invitation. It's great to be here.

I'm really happy to have you. I mean, we've been in touch for a while already and it's nice that it finally happens. Before speaking about safety, can you please introduce yourself briefly to our audience?

Yeah, so as I say, my name's John Franklin. I've, for the last five years now, I've been head of safety promotion at EASA for the last, I've been at EASA for 13 years now. Before that, I was head of the safety analysis team, and when I first came to EASA, I was responsible for setting up a network of safety analysis coordination across all the national authorities. So I've kind of been involved in safety, safety risk management and then kind of promoting the outcomes of all the great safety work for the last 13 years here at EASA. And before that I was 20 years as an engineer in the Air Force in the UK. So originally as an aircraft technician, physically working on aircraft and then as effectively a maintenance manager. And then the last 10 years I spent with working in safety first. My first safety job was as the UK defense FOD officer. So I know everybody loves to talk about FOD. And then I got involved in accident investigation and what we would call SMS today. So I've kind of been in and around safety for 25 years or so now.

Okay. Let us take the thing step by step and start with a very easy, almost naive question. Safety always, I said it in the intro and a lot of people are speaking about safety and aviation in ATM all around. But what is safety for you? What is your definition of safety, both yours under the formal definition of safety, maybe

Formal definition.. So it's so complicated. So certainly from my perspective, I, I've particularly now in my job doing safety promotion, one of the challenges we have is how do we explain the challenges and particularly the concepts around safety to so many different people in so many different countries and so many different ways. And interesting, I've continually read about safety, all sorts of different books. And actually I read one of the, there's quite a number of safety, one safety, two safety differently kind of books and things out there. And I particularly grasped one of the new "safety differently" books and they talk about safety as the capacity to ensure effective and safe operations in aviation. And I really kind of like that one because it then starts to build up what are the building blocks and the things that we have to do in the system in order to achieve whatever objective.
And then it really starts getting you thinking, well, what's the purpose of safety where I have to do safety, if that makes sense. And then you start getting into, particularly if you take the ATM context, if your goal is to make sure that aircraft take off and fly through the air without colliding with each other at a really basic level and you get everybody from A to B in one piece, it's how you derive your safety outcomes from that and all the things you need to do either as an individual or an organization to make that happen. And I think at a really fundamental level, it's the easiest way to think about it because once you start getting into all the more complex, more formal definitions of the definition of safety management and the ICAO pillars of safety management and all of these things, you start doing safety work without really understanding what you are actually trying to achieve. And I've seen some really interesting examples of where organizations or individuals have tied themselves up in knots trying to do something without coming back to that central fundamental piece of what am I actually trying to achieve here? I've done a risk assessment and I've got a current reporting and I'm doing safety promotion, I have a safety policy. And then you forget what is that actually trying to do. Does that help?

Sure. I have another definition I remember from some safety courses, but it's almost 20 years old, so it's probably outdated to you, but I'd like to have your opinion on that. I think the definition was to say that safety is the absence of unacceptable hazards. I don't know if that one is still current or if it has been outdated.

No, and actually on a fundamental level, I love that because one of the problems I think aviation has is it was, it's been very difficult to define what acceptable is. And in a sense, by steering away from that because it was a very difficult question, I think in a sense quite often we miss, I see organizations not missing that, but not having that as key in the conversation as perhaps they should is that I have this risk, have I managed it to an acceptable level or not? And I think I really like your definition actually. I think that's good.

As you said, it's hard to know what is acceptable. I'm still looking for the acceptable-ometer.

Oh, I know.

Never found it so far. Which brings me a bit into the next topic we wanted to discuss. Aviation is a human field. We have human pilots, human mechanics, human air traffic controllers. And this will remain the same for the foreseeable future at least. And that brings to a topic about how do we perceive safety, how do we manage safety? Because human are pretty good, but let's face it, we all make mistakes. I stumbled on a couple of thoughts already in that podcast. I remember of a study that say you make as a human, typically six mistakes an hour - can be picking the wrong key or whatever. So how does EASA or how does this mature safety organization address that - is, do you go full blame like you made a mistake, you are responsible for it, you are guilty, you are out. Or do you go all the other way and say, no, everybody can make mistakes as long as they are not on purpose, obviously. It's okay. Do you want to go more towards systems? Do you want to go more towards making room for errors? What is EASA's views and what is your view on that? And I'm sorry, that was a really long question.

No, no, that's fine. No, no, exactly what you mean. And so I think one of the key things is, and it's kind of embedded in the heart of EASA's regulations, particularly when we talk about Regulation 376 under current reporting, is that ultimately humans will make mistakes and Just culture is key. And that ultimately we want organizations to embrace the learning opportunities that you get from mistakes. And unless people do things for whatever malicious reasons, then the focus should always be on organizational learning and capturing that information and trying to figure out how we can improve. And I think certainly at a personal level, that's always been at the heart of the things I've done on safety. I used to do human factors training in the UK military many years ago. And we used to talk about one example in terms of Just culture that it's easy to talk about it's okay to make mistakes, but that becomes more and more difficult the more damage you cause if that makes any sense.
So there's a famous case that we used to use now human factors training where a technician in the US in the US Air Force had fitted in, used a homemade gauge in order to call to do a pressure test on a KC-135 tanker, and they'd over pressurized the aircraft and effectivelly broken the spine of the aircraft. It's quite a famous picture where you see the aircraft literally completely wrecked. And on the face of it, the suggestion of a technician making a homemade gauge in order to do a pressure test sounds like a terrible thing. And that, oh my God, how can this individual make such a bad mistake? And the first natural reaction from most people when you hear the basics of that is to blame the individual. And you've done this terrible thing and had this terrible outcome. But ironically, the reality in the end is that quite often we put our best people under the most pressure in the most difficult situations.
And in that case was a great example of an organization accepting it had to make trade offs in order to achieve an operational objective. And I think that's where ultimately embracing the organizational situations that we put our best or all our people in, but you know, traditionally find that it will be the best people you give the toughest jobs to. So you wouldn't naturally, hopefully in common sense terms do anything bad to those people because well, they just tried to do their best with the circumstances they found themselves in and hopefully treating that as learning opportunities. And I particularly enjoyed the more I've learned about read from certain books recently and about organizations completely changing their vocabulary. So could you imagine a world where we don't call them occurrence investigators anymore, we call them learning officers, and you don't call them investigations, you call them learning opportunities.
I know a couple of airports who are there already and they have learning opportunities and you start being much more proactive about safety with them as you start to embrace the realization that people will make mistakes. Although of course one of the challenges comes from that is that there is, as technology, it becomes better at doing things that individuals did, then you start replacing certain tasks that humans do with technology and it's finding where's the right place for that. And it's easy to suggest that something might be done by a computer or a machine at some point in the future, but how can you ensure the long-term safety of that. I it's a really difficult one. And certainly from EASA perspective, as technology moves faster and faster, the challenge is how do we keep up with the need that the industry has to embrace technology whilst also ensuring the safety of aircraft and all of the flights that we need to do for the long term.

I really like your answer now, a few things I'd like to pick up. First, speaking of learning officers instead of investigators - ok with me, fine with me as long as it's not just changing the name. Because I've been through a few changes already in that industry and sometimes things change name with a good intention behind, but in the end they remain the same things. And that's probably not the way it has to be done.

Yeah, I think that's the key thing, isn't it? It's not just changing the name, it's changing the mindset and the view in which you do something. So yeah, I'm with you completely. There's no point just changing the name for the sake of it. All it does is, and actually probably worse because when you change your name to suggest you're going to do something new and exciting, and then don't, all the staff in that particular workplace realized that it was just smoke and mirrors and that there wasn't really change on the agenda. There was just crap on the agenda.

Well, change management is an enormous topic anyway.

Oh, isn't it? Yeah

And now speaking of machines taking over some, and I have to be careful with my words here, I don't want to say taking over responsibility, but taking over some tasks from human. Do you think we can see a future in ATM where we would've maybe less incidents or less of the humankind incidents, but maybe new kinds of incidents that a human would not produce? And is it something you are working on?

Certainly. I think history shows us that as the world evolves, there are things that happen that perhaps we didn't predict and new situations. So I think we've always got to be on the guard for anything as anything changes, what does that mean for the wider system? So for sure, yeah, I think history shows that something there are going to be new risks. We just need to either try and be aware of what those might be as early as possible and ensure they're mitigated before things like that, get to the frontline of operations and then continually have the kind of culture that helps us report those. In fact, I wonder, I was thinking about AI and whether is there a possibility if we had AI in systems where the AI would be better at holding, at hiding a machine's failing from the system than a human would, if that makes sense.

Yeah, that's one of the many questions with AI. And I mean another one, but that's one more other topic is who is responsible in case the AI makes a bad decision. I think that's a different topic

Completely. But yeah, I think it's, but at the same time, it's an interesting in the question of why the safety philosophies is kind of an interesting, it's an interesting thing to debate. It's kind of thing we debate over coffee on a regular basis.

Oh, I should come to you more often and have coffee's

Yeah, definitely

Let us plan on that. Anyways, you are here today also because this summer you have a summer safety campaign run by EASA, and this also touches ATM. Obviously the scope of EASA is anything flying, but we are here more focused on ATM. So what is your summer safety campaign all about?

So it's the second time now we've, in fact, third time we've run this summer safety campaign. The first time we did it was in 2021, kind of as the industry was ramping up from COVID. And we were particularly looking at how we supported the industry with that ramp up. And we got such a positive response to just opening up the discussion at industry level that we've carried it on now for the last two years. So this is the third year we've done this. And the theme this year we've got is - we call "no compromise on safety", which ironically is almost the first thing to debate is that it's all very well to say no compromise on safety, but I think we all know that in the real world there are compromises and it's more how do we debate where the right compromises are made and who makes those decisions and all of those kinds of things than just a blanket: "no compromise on safety, that's it".
Because it provides the foundation for our system, but there's a lot more gray areas at middle ground. And we've been asking as part of this campaign then focusing on three areas is basically whether organizations and our operations are ready, resilient and responsive. And then particularly so around the ready part, we talk about having enough competent people and the resources to manage risks effectively to ensure safe and effective operations. And particularly I know in the ATM community challenges around recruitment of staff and resources. And we've heard from some areas this summer, even with some of the supply chain issues is where we have problems with the supply chain for a maintenance of ATM equipment particularly. And that's something I know there's been a lot of discussion in the ATM community about in the runup to the summer, and particularly in terms of having the resources available to cope with the peaks of traffic, with the added challenges of the airspace closures around Ukraine.
And we know there are certain issues around GNSS interference and all of these kinds of things. So how can we be ready knowing this slight very complex landscape, particularly for the ATM community. I think in a sense, managing an airspace, managing the airspace of Europe in the complex world we live in is a huge challenge. And the more I think the wider industry has that discussion, hopefully the better. And then for the resilient part, we talk about being prepared for any operational challenges and external threats, and then how can we support our staff to perform to their best? And particularly starting to think not just about managing what we might call traditional safety risks, but perhaps also some of the psychosocial risks that perhaps we haven't thought about so much in the system historically. And then this is where particularly the 'no compromise and safety' part comes in, is not pushing the boundaries of the rules, is using the rules as that foundation.
And that particularly when it comes to things like fatigue and that kind of stuff is that we've got a lot of the rules around, well, a lot of the rules around the area have some degree of flexibility and that we don't, are resilient enough that we are not trying to run at full speed for the whole summary. And we kind of like it to the concept of we've got between now and say the end of September, we are running a marathon, and if we set off trying to run a marathon at the speed of running a hundred meters, we're all going to be far too tired by the middle of July to get through the summer. So it's how can we be resilient knowing that potentially we have all these other external threats? Yeah, we've talked a lot about cyber risks, for example, and there's all sorts of other things that might impact the ability of the ATM system to support the level of operations.
And the more prepared we are, we've seen throughout the safety week that we had recently, some really good examples of the preparations, whether that's for airlines, airports, maintenance organizations, but particularly from EUROCONTROL from the ANSPs collaborating together as a network. So that much work has gone in that we're kind of as ready as we're going to be, and now it's a case of how do we get through work together over the next few months to make the summer as effective as possible. And that's particularly where the responsive part comes in. So how do we have the mindset to promote reporting, to encourage collaborative safety conversations, whether that's within an organization, but also at a wider system level. And I know having seen EUROCONTROLs own summer campaign is communication between all the different service providers is really at the heart of that so that if there are any potential problems in the network, they're identified and managed and cascaded.
So anybody, everybody else who's feeding and relies on that system can plan ahead and then reacting positively and quickly to challenges on changing situations and communicating effectively. So that's the key part of all of that. And then as I said, we had our safety weeks recently with cross domain discussion with various people from all sorts of different parts of the industry had CANSO from the ATM side, Saafan Osman  from DFS representing CANSO in that discussion. Then with IATA, the Regional Airlines Association and ACI and with somebody from Prague Airport, then we had different domain discussions, so Air OPS, ATM, maintenance, flight crew training, et cetera, et cetera. So we had those different discussions, and particularly the ATM session that we had on the Wednesday afternoon of the safety week was a really interesting discussion, particularly focused around the collaboration between all the different service providers and the need for effective communication.
But we also particularly focused a lot that discussion on handling potentially any severe weather problems that we might anticipate over the summer. And we had some great examples from different organizations on how they did that. And then we followed that up. We have a summer safety SIB and lots of promotion material and all sorts of different supporting material just to help particularly such, the idea is to save organizations a analysis time by pooling the analysis available that we have and through collaboration so that we can say, this is what the risk picture looks like or we think it looks like for the summer. And then from that, what do we think the mitigations that we see with our collaborative partners would be to help, at least going into the summer, we're all aligned on, we're all solving the same problems and we all think there's going to be the same challenges. And actually that was really pleasing to see is that there's been so many discussions since last summer leading into this summer that it wasn't like when we were having those discussions about what, what's going to happen this summer and what risks are there, is that there was nothing new that suddenly we said, "oh, we hadn't thought of that". I think everywhere everybody had pretty much the same picture and it was just making sure we were using the right words and getting aligned, if that makes sense.

Yep. I just need to say something to our audience here just to make things clear because we are recording that episode on the 5th of June, which is why you are speaking about the upcoming summer, but it'll come out probably around the 6th or 7th of July. So John, if you said something and there were some events between June and July, the audience, please don't go back to John and say, oh, you said that blah, blah, blah, because we have that months in production and editing and our scheduling just wanted to say.

And it's worth perhaps saying that for us, we are still in the sort of shoulder to the ramp up and we work on the theory that actually your podcast couldn't be better timed in the sense that that's kind of the time where the majority of the schools really start finishing for the summer and the people, the real peak of the summer comes. So actually, yeah, we kind of really focused on the core period of June, of July and August with the kind of July and September. July we've, let's get our final prepping preparations in order in late June heading into early July, and then beyond that all the way through to September.

So you explained us a bit what is going on, and you mentioned a lot of workshops and activities that probably happen at management level, I imagine, or are there also things for really frontline workers in your campaign?

So one of the things that we've been really clear about from, and this is applies to all our EASA safety promotion material, is that the last thing any organization needs is EASA communicating to the workforce. The workforce have a specific context of their organization and what their organization needs them to do. So our audience and our material is very much aimed at safety managers, providing safety managers with material to make, to put in the relevance of their organization and communicate that to the staff as almost as a cascade where it's relevant. So we make a very deliberate point that we are not there to say to a controller or a pilot or whatever, this is what you should do because that probably doesn't help their organization in managing safety in their organization. Does that make sense?

There are certainly. So now we better understand who the target is. And now should some safety people want to know more about your campaign, about what the activities are, where can they go to? Is their website or is this something specific or can I just turn to you?

Yeah, so we have our EASA Air OPS community, although we call it Air OPS, it's more, it's basically everything around kind of large aeroplane operations. So it covers ATM, aerodromes and maintenance and all parts of the system. We work collaboratively as much as possible and we try not to get too much into areas that other people already do well. So particularly on the ATM side, we tend to point particularly to Skybrary resources rather than trying to again, confuse things by duplicating effort, but obviously how we plug the ATM kind of part into the wider system. But certainly our EASA Air OPS community is the place to go to get information about the safety week and the ATM specific parts of that campaign.

So now before letting you go and freeing you from that podcast, I have to ask you our typical signature question, what changes do you see coming in term of safety and in ATM in the next 5 years, but also to open the door to more imagination in 50 years from now?

So dare I say, it's not an answer probably many people would give, but something I've learned particularly the more I've got involved in safety promotion in and communication is that actually I think we need to get a lot better at how we communicate and explain things, whether that's complex rules or what's happening in the wider system and things like that. I think the more technology helps to enable us to communicate more effectively and cascade and simplify information and be really clear and positive with throughout the system about what we're trying to achieve from a safety perspective. I think actually that's probably one of the biggest things a, that's coming in terms of change and hopefully a really positive thing. I think a lot of people see technology and lots of things that might come as negatives, but I think also the opportunity to provide a lot more clarity to everybody in the system as to what they have to do and how they do it, and all of that hopefully is a really positive thing that's coming. I see things like your podcast here that as you say we were talking about before the podcast, is that there were, historically, there's been less and less resources or less and less, there haven't been resources to help people understand what is a very complex system. And the more things like this exist, the easier it is to people for people to see through the fog of complexity and actually do things more and more effectively. So I think that's a big thing for me, probably a little bit different from what you usually have.

No, it's nice. We like that question because everybody has their own answer. So thank you very much for that. Thank you for being our guest today. If you want to know more about the topic, refer to the episode notes. We will put LinkedIn profile websites and please, if you like the podcast, don't forget to follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcast, wherever you listen, and you can find all the history and all the past episodes there, and also on Thank you very much and bye-bye.

Thanks, thanks for having me.