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Do High-Reliability Systems Have Lower Error Rates? Evidence from Commercial Aircraft Accidents


  • Patrick D. O'Neil is assistant professor in the School of Public Administration, Aviation Institute, University of Nebraska Omaha. He is a retired naval aviator with more than 26 years of operational military service. His research interests include high-performance, low-error organizations; hazard identifi cation and risk mitigation strategies for the protection of critical infrastructure; policy implementation and evaluation; and transportation network analysis. E-mail:

  • Kenneth A. Kriz is currently associate professor of public fi nance at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He conducts research focusing on subnational debt policy and administration, public pension fund management, and the use of advanced quantitative methods. He was Fulbright Scholar to the Republic of Estonia and Fulbright Senior Specialist in the Czech Republic. In July 2013, he will become the Regents’ Distinguished Professor of Public Finance at Wichita State University. E-mail:


High-reliability advocates claim that highly reliable organizations (HROs), such as the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) air traffic control system, routinely demonstrate the ability to safely and reliably perform large-scale technical operations. High levels of productivity with low levels of error are achieved even though complex technologies are used to accomplish mission goals. A recent study asserted that the FAA’s air traffic control function developed HRO characteristics over a long period of time as part of a larger high-reliability system. In that study, identifiable and measurable attributes and characteristics associated with high reliability were constructed, and their emergence was tracked over time. In this article, time-series analysis was used to measure the relationship between characteristics associated with high reliability and commercial aviation accident reduction. A small but statistically significant effect was identified linking the adoption of HRO characteristics over time with a reduction in commercial aviation accident rates.