"A Risk Averse Society"
Robert A. Sturgell, Washington, D.C.
December 2, 2008

International Safety Forum

Good morning, and thank you, Nick [Sabatini].

Before we get too far into this conference, let’s take a moment to pause with respect to the terrible tragedy that occurred last week in India. Our hearts go out to the family and friends who were affected by that senseless violence.

Now, to the matter at hand. This conference has become a watermark for international aviation. We’ve got well over 450 people in the audience from 37 countries. Everyone’s here to advance aviation safety and everyone wants to walk away with something new. This is the place to do it.

If I were to start by telling you we’re here today because the international aviation safety system is failing, we’d get some big headlines from our friends in the press. But you’d all look at me like I was crazy.

Because you know that’s just not true. Aviation is safe. You know that because your experience proves it. The numbers prove it, and that statistically, any bar of soap in the bathtub is potentially far more lethal than a ride in an airplane.

Yet we fight this battle again and again and again. Here’s the story we see any number of times during the year:  “Aviation:  How Safe Is It?” 

The world loves a catchy headline, especially one that taps into fear. The fact of the matter is that white-knuckle fliers have a lot more to be worried about in their cars than they do while flying.

The sky is not falling. But the real question is:  why do so many people allow themselves to be persuaded that it is?  Bottom line:  we’ve got to do a better job of communicating risk. Let’s be clear — all human endeavor has risk — and people very well may have a right to be concerned about earthquakes, hurricanes, water, heights, the dark and monsters under the bed. And as far as aviation is concerned — operating at 30,000 feet above the ground is risky, and we do have safety issues that need to be addressed. No question about it. But the data tells us that the fear of aviation accidents does not match the facts. What I see instead is a society that has grown and continues to grow more and more averse to risk. Any risk and the consequence of that is that not only are low-risk issues depicted as a catastrophe in waiting, but also, we end up allocating resources to all risks, not just those that are high or not just those risks with high consequences.

While not discounting the remaining risks in aviation or the importance of perception, in the case of commercial aviation, the low level of risk is unprecedented. Consider that each system on a commercial airliner is designed for a failure rate of no worse than 10 to the minus 9 — one in a billion. Currently, the total experience for US commercial aviation, including operational issues as well as the airplane itself, is less than 10 to the minus 8. So the total is within a stone’s throw of the required risk level for an individual system. A person boarding a commercial flight is basically at negligible risk.

So think about it. In the past two years, the U.S. air carrier system has moved more than 1.6 billion passengers and crew with just one on-board fatality, and that was on a cargo flight. Most of the countries here today have had similar or better experiences in recent years. For the U.S., that statistic of one on-board fatality among 1.6 billion people is considerably better than 10 to the minus 9.

The purpose of this conference is to further improve upon this global aviation safety record, to address various aspects of aviation, ranging from runway safety and oversight to data sharing and public confidence to learn from each other. That has to be looked at in three respects:  where we are now, where are we going, and how we plan to get there.

Each of these aspects also needs to be examined through the lens of popular perception. People fear what they cannot control, which is why you’re led to believe that flying at flight level three zero zero at mach point eight-two is somehow more dangerous than doing 75 on the Washington Beltway. For those of you from out of town, the Beltway is the highway circling Washington where cars at high speed and drivers making angry gestures converge. The Beltway’s safety record is so tangled that local radio stations talk about it every 10 minutes and that happens 24 hours a day.

In fact the Beltway is instructive about perception versus real risk. The Beltway is part of our Interstate Highway System, or autoroute/motorway system. As in other countries, this is by far our safest road system. Some Americans choose to drive on long trips, mostly using the Interstate System, because they believe it is safer than flying because again they think they are in control. They are wrong on both counts, of course. On a 500-mile trip, the risk of fatal injury on the safest road system in the country is about 50 times greater than when traveling on a commercial airline, depending on exactly what period one chooses to compare.

As human beings, we don’t like risks, especially when we can’t control the situation. And we’ll go to great lengths as a society to gain control or the semblance of control. For example, there’s the suggestion that an aviation inspector should be kicking the tires of every airplane every day. Yet would anyone consider checking the oil and tire pressure and battery connections and any of the other systems of a car before they turn the key and drive off?  Hardly.

The last man to set foot on the moon, Gene Cernan, made the comment here last year that if NASA had held itself to the same level of safety we find today in aviation, we’d still be using a telescope to examine the lunar surface.

But even with all that as background, we know that we must take each situation seriously. We can’t afford to take it as a given that the fear we read about in the papers is irrational, and, as I said, in aviation, the fact is that risk is not zero and we do have remaining risks to address.

The problem results when an irrational fear begins to drive public policy. The resources that could or should be dedicated to high-risk, high priority programs instead are diverted to low priority, low-risk efforts.

If you take a look at where we’ve been in terms of fatalities per 100 million persons on-board, you can see that partnerships, technology, and focusing on the risks is the answer. In the U.S. in 1948, the number of fatalities per 100 million persons on board was near two thousand. Today, it is effectively zero. There was indeed a time in the early, early days of aviation where one in 10 pilots would crash. That’s certainly not the case anymore.

But all of this gets back to a question I posed earlier. If all of this is true, why doesn’t anyone believe it?  Part of it reflects the lack of control. Part of it comes from the fact that we do have genuine issues being raised throughout the system that draw attention away from the larger picture. 25 serious runway incursions are 25 too many, but there were 57 million 999 thousand and 975 operations that went just as they were supposed to. So, it’s a low risk event, statistically, but one with a very high consequence.

I’d like to leave you with a challenge. We must try to educate people to understand that the system is risk based and that our focus should be on the high risks and the high-consequence events. If we don’t, it’s going to get harder and harder to do the things we need to. We run the risk of working at things of lesser importance. I think that at the core of all this is partnership. In a system that’s as complex as the one we’re here to discuss, there must be familiarity and trust at all levels and across all entities, specifically industry and government. We know the “gotcha” approach drives safety issues underground … which is where they’ll stay until the next accident.

Thanks to partnership, technology and procedures, we have successfully eliminated or reduced risk in many areas. We know, for example, that precision brings safety, and technology is often the key to precision. We see that with RNP/RNAV. But technology and new procedures notwithstanding, there are still remaining risks we still need to tackle. We’re doing everything we can technology-wise on our runways, but it still comes down to the human element. When you’re told to hold short, will you?  In a society that expects no risk, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything we can.

The fact is we do not have a risk-free system. But life is risky. You prepare, you drill, you equip, you train, you modify, make mistakes, learn from them, and correct things. And you share information, you eliminate known hazards, you flag potential weaknesses, you guard against them. Most importantly, you recognize that the antidote to fear generated by risk is trust.

You build trust through action, excellence, performance, professionalism, and predictability. In the case of aviation, build trust through partnerships, data sharing, effective oversight and focus on reducing risk.

We must address those who would undermine public trust to foster their own agenda. We have to reach out to those naysayers and convince them that the public trust is not a commodity to be trifled with. It is a precious right we need to earn every day by delivering safe, reliable service to those who use this system. That is a mission that deserves our full attention and commitment. As we continue to improve the global aviation safety record, we build not only trust but peace of mind. Thank you.

See video of the International Safety Forum speech.