"Address to Women in Aviation International Conference"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Orlando, Florida
February 26, 2010

Women in Aviation International


Remarks as prepared for delivery

As we look back across the last few decades in aviation, it’s easy to spot the events that made us stand up and take notice of what’s going on in our business. The TWA 800 and ValuJet headlines come to mind right away. Those lapses galvanized our response and our resolve in terms of preparedness, in terms of a willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent a recurrence.

With hindsight providing crystal clarity, looking at smaller events is, I think, the best way to spot the larger safety issues. Lately, we’ve had a string of events in our system that have given me some pause, that have been a cause for concern. I’m talking primarily about the lack of professionalism that seems to be rippling through our system. In my opinion, our vigilance needs to be stepped up. America holds us to a very high standard. We have to get it right first time and every time.

For several years, we’ve been beating the drum about the safety of this system. In truth, we went more than two years without a fatal commercial crash. More than 2 billion passengers flew during that time. Our runways have never been safer. Our international partnerships have never been more rock-solid.

But now, the more I see, the more I realize that the moment there’s a crash, all of the safety numbers, while impressive, are history; and history isn’t any reassurance when things go bad. We’re in the same spot that any surgeon finds him or herself. 999 successful operations in a row might help put the patient at ease, but it’s the procedure happening right now that’s really of primary concern to the patient on the table. Track records are important, but, well, this job is the one you want to see get done right.

I’m not signaling that I think a string of accidents is around the corner. In fact, far from it. I have high regard for the pros in this business at each an every level. But we have to focus everyone’s attention to the never-ending need to do everything we can for safety. As a pilot, I feel the same way. And as a passenger, let’s face it, there’s no wiggle-room here. What I ask is that everyone in this business take a big step up.

And I don’t mean just for next week or next month. No, we need to climb and maintain a higher level of safety in this industry.

This system, our system, is made up of many parts of people with many different jobs, and each one of them has a role in safety. All of us have to be involved in to detecting unsafe trends before they result in an accident.

This industry is absolutely the safest of the safe because we have taken so many preventive steps. The very fact that we have so few accidents is the very reason we have to identify these situations in which an accident did not actually occur but it could have. We know that most accidents are simply a collection of poorly timed errors. To keep stopping those errors we have to pay attention to all of them, however small.

I’m here today to say in no uncertain terms that professionalism is our primary weapon against the possibility of minute lapses that could develop along the way. When you see something wrong, you raise your hand, and you speak up. There’s not a person in this room who’d want to live with the regret of wishing that you’d said something about a sterile cockpit, about a maintenance lapse, about a corner that you’re pretty sure is being cut.

We have safety rules in place to make sure that corners don’t get cut. When things get moving very fast, that’s the precise time you need to bear down on that checklist. We can’t taxi with our heads down to make for an on-time takeoff. That’s a genesis of an incursion in which lots of people could get hurt. When the budgets get tight, that’s the very moment in which you as CFO, CEO or baggage handler — it doesn’t matter to me — that’s the time you need to stop, think, then ask, “Does this look like the procedure that’s been error free, or are we pushing so hard that it doesn’t even resemble our standard operating procedure?”

As I’ve said before, I can’t regulate the person who’s just going to flat out do the wrong thing. I can’t write a rule that’s going to work if I’m dealing with a person who’s going to ignore it. Our training now is so sophisticated, so realistic that it’s hard to imagine a scenario that can’t be recreated in a virtual world. But no training, no matter how good is going to help someone who thinks that situational awareness is a slogan that we only use during check rides. The right thing to do is always the right thing to do.

For my part, the goal is to push the envelope in terms of stepping things up in every aspect of our business, especially on professionalism, particularly mentorship as the foundation of professionalism. Aviation safety is all about taking care of the small details, watching for trends before they become a problem. The seasoned professionals among us have to teach the less-experienced among us how to spot these trends.

Forensic science is necessary to understand the causes of individual accidents and is the first step in the route to preventing accidents. Everyone recognizes that the future route to success is in risk-free, non-punitive incident reporting, knowing that you’re not going to get punished for pointing out a problem. This will get us much further along as we try to eliminate accident causes. Electronic databases like FAA's ASIAS system aggregates millions of data points received through anonymous, non-punitive incident safety reporting programs such as ASRS, ASAP, and FOQA. This type of data allows us to review the information with experts and implement safety enhancements before an accident occurs.

As you know, I’m also pushing very hard to revise and update pilot flight, duty and rest time rules. Back in D.C. during the snowstorm, road crews were trying to clear 24 inches. One driver who’d been on the job for 18 hours straight stopped everything dead in its tracks by trying to make it through an underpass with the rear part of his rig raised in the air. Everyone agrees that there some things a dump truck driver just should not do but when you’re too tired, you make mistakes you normally wouldn’t.

Let me give you the snapshot of where we stand with our flight and duty time rule. I convened an aviation rulemaking committee specifically to make recommendations on flight time, rest and fatigue. I invited industry and labor to work with us to wade through the science and design a practical approach to fatigue management. While the timetable is still not as fast as I’d originally wanted, we are issuing a proposal this spring. As I said recently during testimony on Capitol Hill, I take exception to the suggestion that nothing’s happening here. As rulemaking efforts go, this one was at Mach 2.

In addition to pushing through some tough safety reform and pushing for data-sharing that heads off accident causes at the pass, I’m pushing for safety solutions, big or small. A week ago, I was with Senator Rockefeller in Charleston, West Virginia, at Yeager Airport. As most of us know it sits atop a big mountain. In January, we had a tremendous save there, when US Airways flight 2495 skidded off the runway and came to a complete stop because of EMAS, the engineered material arresting system. It’s a system made of pliable concrete that breaks up kind of like ice, bringing an aircraft to a stop with minimal damage. In my view, it’s the least expensive safety net you’re ever going to find. And I can find a couple of pilots and a few dozen passengers who will shake their heads vigorously in agreement. It’s now been used six times at different airports with six successful saves.

On the high-tech front, I’m also making sure that our efforts to launch NextGen stay in high gear. NextGen is changing the aviation landscape for the better. Its power and flexibility enables us to look at equipment and facilities in ways that we’ve never been able to. Consider ADS-B, which really has the potential to turn the concept of radar-based control on its ear. As you know, we’ve been able to get ADS-B up and running in the Gulf and in Louisville. Philadelphia and Alaska will follow thereafter.

ADS-B is the satellite era coming to aviation. In the Gulf, where there’s no radar at all, we go to the separation standards that we’ve come to expect. That’s quite a departure from the World-War 2 radio procedures that had been in place there. It’s in the initial operating stages, small first steps but the payoff in safety and efficiency is enormous. This is a technological leap on the same order of magnitude as radar itself; maybe bigger. The Gulf is known for a lack of weather reporting, position reporting and communications. ADS-B can close that chapter for good. As a pilot, I know ADS-B is going to change the way we fly.

These aren’t inexpensive technologies we are talking about but the safety, efficiency and environmental benefits make the business case.

There’s more coming on line with NextGen. As a foundation for future NextGen capabilities, the latest in air traffic control software, which we call ERAM, is showing that it can handle 24-hour testing in Salt Lake. ERAM replaces the backbone of the NAS with a system that was designed to support future NextGen capabilities. Performance-based navigation is saving fuel, reducing delay, and cutting emissions at many airports across the country. With all of these innovations and technological advances, we can’t forget one really important factor: us. 

As long as there are humans in this loop, as long as humans must interact with machines, there is a chance for error. We must take a hard look at human factors in aviation. We must be equally tough in our assessment of training. Technology is moving along so fast we have to redouble our efforts to ensure the human keeps up. .

The larger question must be asked and answered:  Have we created a safety culture?  That’s the linchpin here, because safety is a shared responsibility — shared by FAA and the manufacturers and the carriers and the pilots alike; shared by all of us in the aviation community. Total perfection is not realistic but we can make it the norm not the exception.

And that should not stop us from striving to climb to that next level of safety or professionalism. As members of the aviation community we have a shared responsibility to make that happen.

That responsibility is what drives me as FAA Administrator and that’s why I am asking all of you to renew your commitment to helping us reach this goal.

Thank you.

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