Measure and improve safety culture in the aviation industry

Europe has around 40 air navigation service providers employing more than 50,000 people and coordinating up to 30,000 flights a day. Two mid-air collisions, Milan Linate in 2001 and Überlingen in 2002, revealed serious problems in the safety culture of these service providers. Reader Tom has developed a methodology to systematically measure safety culture in air traffic management, which has contributed to strengthening European aviation safety.

Impact Case — Research Excellence Framework (REF)

A poor safety culture is a causal factor in serious aviation accidents.

Safety culture refers to the standards and practices for managing risk within an organization. In a strong safety culture, employees and managers agree on the importance of safety and it is an integral part of daily practices such as incident reporting, teamwork, training and resources . When such practices are absent, management and employees are less able to identify, discuss and mitigate security threats, with serious consequences.

Effective safety management is essential for aviation and air traffic management. Across Europe, there are around 40 air navigation service providers employing over 50,000 people and coordinating up to 30,000 flights per day (15,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic). Although fatal accidents are rare, mid-air collisions in 2001 (Milan Linate) and 2002 (Überlingen) revealed serious problems in the safety culture of European air navigation service providers.

What have we done?

In 2006, EUROCONTROL, the manager of the European air traffic management network, launched a program to measure, assess and improve the safety culture among European national air navigation service providers. Initially, this project was a collaboration with researchers at the University of Aberdeen led by Dr Kathryn Mearns and supported by me. I led the later stages after joining LSE in 2010.

Safety culture research has traditionally focused on measuring culture qualitatively or through generic surveys, usually within companies, industries, or countries. The EUROCONTROL project, on the other hand, was international and practice-oriented.

Between 2006 and 2008, we created a toolkit to identify and measure the essential components of a “culture of safety” in the industry. Through top-down analysis (using safety culture theory to design and interpret survey items) and bottom-up evaluation of survey responses, we designed a questionnaire that captured practices essential to managing safety in air traffic control.

We then developed a six-dimensional conceptual model of safety culture. These covered: management commitment, collaboration, incident reporting, communication, safety support (resources) and commitment of colleagues and staff to safety. These dimensions were used to explore safety practices in focus groups, interviews and discussions with executives in different countries.

Further survey data from a bespoke questionnaire based on these six dimensions was collected between 2011 and 2013 from air traffic controllers (n=5,176) and managers (n=1,230) in 17 country. The results supported the use of a single conceptual model to explain, interpret and compare safety culture across Europe, which could then generate recommendations for improvement.

Additional research with 13,000 employees at 21 air traffic management centers showed that safety culture is determined, in part, by national norms of uncertainty avoidance and tendencies to challenge authority. This shows that safety culture can be shaped by factors outside management’s control; as such, work to improve safety must be adapted to different national environments.

Together, this research has created a new benchmark for safety culture, which can be customized to ensure safety in the global air traffic management industry. It now represents the standard for measuring safety culture and was later adapted for the wider airline industry.

What happened?

This program has been used by EUROCONTROL to monitor and improve safety management in the European air traffic management industry, and has been applied by more than 30 national air navigation service providers. For EUROCONTROL, it provides a mechanism to dialogue with national organizations on safety culture, to create a benchmark for monitoring safety and to make recommendations to improve safety at organizational and industry level. It is one of the largest international and industry-wide safety culture assessment and development programs, and was awarded the 2014 President’s Award by the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.

We helped national security providers conduct the survey and analyze data from over 30,000 survey respondents and over 1,000 focus group participants, which informed EUROCONTROL’s work with national organizations. Most European air navigation service providers have used this methodology, and many of them also participate in an annual safety culture workshop organized by EUROCONTROL and attended by LSE researchers.

This process helps organizations identify both strengths and areas for development in security management. A EUROCONTROL document details the responses of seven major participating organizations and what they learned from the process. Many benefits have been reported, such as improved safety communication, collaboration and incident reporting. One large organization, for example, with more than 500,000 thefts per year, reported an 80% increase in incident reporting and significant improvements in the quality of security incident information collected.

Applying this consistent methodology has helped air navigation service providers develop a coordinated approach to safety culture. CEOs of participating institutions confirmed that the assessment process helped them recognize that safety culture is critical to operations, enabling them to drive change. Since participating in the program surveys, many air navigation service providers now conduct their own safety culture surveys and workshops.

This scientific, coordinated and collaborative approach to safety culture has since been extended to the entire aviation system. In cooperation with the European Cockpit Association (ECA, the Union of European Pilots), the Safety Culture Survey has been customized to measure safety culture in the airline industry. In 2016, a sample of 7,000 pilots from over 30 airlines responded to the survey conducted by LSE and ECA. The results provided new insights into issues such as zero-hour contracts and ineffective fatigue management. These shed light on questions from MEPs on the “ultra-safe aviation industry” in Europe; a survey by the European Commission on the working conditions of airline crews; and the recommendations of the European Aviation Safety Agency on fatigue management.

Major airlines have also used information from safety culture surveys. EasyJet, for example, made changes to its schedules and rosters, provided new training and created a pilot peer support program in response to its safety culture survey. Luton Airport was surveyed by EUROCONTROL and LSE in 2016 which helped it bring together 15 organizations from its aviation system and improve coordination. This program was recognized with a 2018 award from the International Air Transport Association.

Finally, this research is also becoming influential beyond aviation. The Safety Culture Methodology has been used by the Financial Conduct Authority to shape its thinking on how to effectively conceptualise, measure and manage culture in the financial industry.



  • This blog post originally appeared as an impact case study of the LSE Research Excellence Framework (REF).
  • The post office represents the point of view of its author(s), and not the position of the European Commission, LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Image selected by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash
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