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Since the late 1990s, airlines and the FAA have placed a greater emphasis on voluntary data-gathering programs that enable airlines to spot and correct problems before they lead to accidents. Airlines are also pooling information in search of industry-wide trends and disclosing their problems to regulators through a government-industry safety working group without fear of punishment. The data collaboration has moved beyond analyzing past accidents and incidents for safety lessons to searching for clues on emerging vulnerabilities in day-to-day airline operations, FAA and industry officials said.

Such data analysis has the greatest potential to yield future safety improvements, they said.

“We’re not waiting for a rules change to come out. We’re out there using our data and making these decisions,” said Ken Hylander, senior vice president for safety and security at Delta Air Lines and co-chair of the government-industry working group.

For example, airlines generally tell pilots not to abort takeoffs after a plane has reached a speed of about 90 mph because in most cases it’s safer to continue the takeoff even if there’s a safety concern. But occasionally pilots abort takeoffs at high speeds anyway.

Using data automatically gathered by a plane’s computers, an airline can pinpoint exactly what was happening at the moment that a decision to abort was made. Perhaps there was a warning light that a cargo door was open or some other safety indicator. Airlines can then take those examples and use them in training programs to show pilots why they should continue a takeoff.

“There are literally hundreds of people at all the airlines collecting and analyzing data,” Margaret Gilligan, FAA’s associate administrator for safety, said. “They are working with us voluntarily on all kinds of committees to share that data among themselves because there are things we want an airline to find out and fix for itself. But there are also things we want to understand as an industry that might be systemic, that any individual airline might not see the risk, but when we can combine the data we can see there is a risk emerging that no one has identified yet.”