"An International Call to Action"
Robert A. Sturgell, Washington, D.C.
November 29, 2007

International Safety Forum

Thank you, Vice Admiral [Tom] Barrett. Good morning, and welcome to our fourth annual international safety forum. I see lots of old friends and lots of new faces. Our first conference drew 330 attendees from 15 countries. Since then, we’ve eclipsed that mark every year, this year included. To me, that shows that as an industry — as a global industry — we’re all pointing in the same direction.

Let me start off by thanking Admiral Barrett for opening things up. I think he put the issue for us in just the right context. Safety is a shared responsibility. As you read the Admiral’s biography, you see that his view of safety comes from a different angle: the Coast Guard. Let me say for the record that there are very few 30-foot swells in commercial aviation. But even at that, the message is the same. No matter where you are or what you do, whether it’s on a plane or on a ship, safety’s got to come first.

I think safety first is the best way for all of us to look at this conference. While the message is indeed the same — safety — the challenge, though, is a bit different for us in aviation. The question for us in aviation is how to maintain the safety record that’s the envy of all transportation. This is the safest period in the safest generation in the history of transportation. It’s been called the Golden Age of Safety, and that’s precisely right.

So how are we going to raise the bar?  The answer to that, I think, is simple to say but a challenge to implement. The answer is SMS — safety management systems — and the challenge I’m here to issue today is for each of the people in this room to become activists for safety management systems. If your operation, or organization, or your nation, doesn’t have one in place or isn’t yet moving toward developing one, that needs to change.

The challenge for you is to return to your cockpit, your workplace, your country, and push hard for SMS. Aviation no longer is in the business of combing through ashes and wreckage to find answers. SMS will give us the intelligence we need before the problem reaches the headlines. When it comes to risks, the low-hanging fruit is long gone. SMS uses hard data to point us in the direction we need to go. We don’t have to wait for something bad to happen.

Before I talk more about SMS, I’d like to spend a moment framing where we are. Aviation is safe; that’s a given. But it’s also growing. Boeing and Airbus set sales records — 65 billion dollars in firm orders in the first two days of the Dubai air show. Dubai Aerospace alone is buying a hundred planes from each manufacturer at a total cost of more than 27 billion dollars. 

We’ve got a similar success story on our hands with business jets. There was a time not too long ago when North America accounted for 80 percent of biz jet purchases. The demand from Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America is soaring. Projections for next year point to deliveries of more than 1,300 business jets worth a record 22 billion dollars. That’s up from 506 deliveries worth $8.2 billion in 2003. 

In terms of sheer passenger counts alone, the U.S. continues to set records every year. We’ll see a billion commercial passengers by 2015.

Bottom line: we’ve got a rapidly growing aviation environment. More people. More planes. And with that comes the challenge of orchestrating them from point A to point B. For each of us, there’s the complicating factor of resources that aren’t growing along with the upward spiral of aviation. Make no mistake here — this is not a commentary on tight budgets. Rather, this is an acknowledgment that none of us has a blank check. It’s an acknowledgment that all of us need to adopt strategies to help handle an upswing in activity with the same level of safety that we’re seeing in today’s golden age.

Here in the United States, fatal air carrier accidents have dropped 65 percent since 1996. That works out to one fatal for every 4.5 million departures. Internationally, the numbers are dropping as well. If the 1996 accident rate had remained the same through last year, there’d have been almost three dozen major accidents. The actual number of fatal accidents was 11. 

Yet, from an international perspective, accident rates vary considerably, with some regions doing well and some not so well.

So, the point is that collectively, we all still need to take a step up, and I’m including the United States of America in that group as well. The safety management system approach will enable us to do that. SMS enables you to keep your eye on the ball every single day. Ultimately, we don’t want to just meet ICAO minimums. Ultimately, our goal is to raise the bar worldwide no matter where you go. No matter what flag’s on the tail. From takeoff to touchdown and all points in between, we want to ensure a consistent level of safety.

At its most fundamental level, a safety management system helps organizations identify and manage risk. It does not wait for something to happen. It doesn’t rely on anecdotal information. It is based on hard data. Safety management systems help us manage risk far better than we have, because it’s a disciplined and standardized approach to managing risk. We can review past experience and address known hazards at the same time we can look ahead and rigorously apply safety risk management.

At the very core of the SMS is the need to identify potential hazards and then analyze risk. After that, the next steps are to rank hazards and assess risk, and then identify mitigation options. It’s a closed-loop process where identified risks are mitigated and the mitigations are monitored to provide continuous system safety.

Our Air Traffic Organization is adopting a Safety Management System for its operational policies, processes, and procedures.

Our Aviation Safety organization is moving to an SMS construct. Last year, Nick Sabatini’s organization developed an SMS doctrine and now his group is moving surely to implementation. The next logical step to enhance safety is what I see as the evolution from “inspecting safety” to taking a systems approach with SMS.

What’s important in this construct is that SMS is being implemented in accordance with ICAO standards that are themselves being changed to apply a systems approach to aviation safety in all aviation domains, including air carriers and airports.

That’s a fundamental difference with the SMS approach — the process itself is overseen. The burden is on the service provider to ensure the safety of the products and services it provides — whether it is design and production of aircraft, air carrier operations, or air traffic control. In this way, both regulator and service provider can better target resources based on risk.

Perhaps the best way to characterize the safety management system is to say that it is a structure of voluntary, non-punitive reporting methods set up with an organization to foster safety awareness all across the board. Even small bits of information can point to a larger problem before that large problem can become a catastrophe.

So, this is the FAA’s view of SMS. What does it mean to you?  Our recent Call to Action for runway safety is an example of using SMS principles. As you know, we’ve had a string of events that pointed to a problem with our runways. They involved a variety of factors — miscommunications, missed turns on taxiways, a snowplow, missed turns onto an active runway, signage. There are more examples, but you get the idea:  runway safety is a major concern.

When we issued our Call to Action, we looked at 5.4 million records covering a 20-year period. We found 117 isolated instances of flight crew confusion here in the States involving a variety of issues.

Our call to action is addressing these issues as we speak. Short-term action such as enhancing runway markings and improving pilot training are already under way.

We also just completed a Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program here in the U.S. I don’t need to tell many of you in the audience today about the comprehensive nature of this audit but I can tell you that we learned a lot about ourselves in the process. We learned that Aviation Safety’s ISO certification has led to great improvements in standardization since the ICAO last audited the FAA in 1999. We learned that our already safe ATC system can be made even more safe if we develop formal agreements between agencies and if we work with airport authorities across this country on common safety improvements.

What this shows is that even as our safety record and oversight tools are first-rate, we still need to be more vigilant. Little events that seem insignificant take on a different meaning when viewed through the lens of the bigger picture. It’s all about continuous improvement, and SMS will produce that outcome.

An SMS isn’t something you pull off the shelf when the need arises. It’s got to be maintained, ingrained.

In closing, let me emphasize that with SMS, everything is interdependent. The true value comes when data are shared, not isolated. There’s no place in safety for secrets. The challenge, now, is up to you. I encourage you to make the most of the information you’ll be hearing. Thank you.