"The NextGen Technician"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Miami Beach Convention Center, Miami, Florida
April 13, 2011

Aviation Week’s MRO Americas Conference

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Ed (Hazelwood) for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here with you in Florida, my home state.  I learned to fly right across the causeway here, in Opa-Locka.

I want to take a moment to thank all of you for the vital work you do. Thank you for your professionalism. I often talk about the importance of doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. And America expects perfection from the aviation industry every hour, every day, all year long.

From the largest MRO down to the line mechanic, it all rests on our trust in the individual. The technicians have the knowledge and the tools. And while the FAA writes the rules, it really does come down to each of you. We cannot regulate personal responsibility and pride. That has to come from within. As someone who’s flown in this system for thousands of hours, I’ve always known that you delivered the goods. So thank you once again.

At the FAA, we are taking steps to build on the professionalism of our industry and enhance our safety culture.

Safety Management Systems will play a key role.

We are working to make the shift from a safety system that relies on forensics, to one where we use computer analyses to show us trends and help us make safety decisions.

The cost of a Safety Management System is far less than the cost of an accident. SMS is a safety feedback loop. You identify the problem, you analyze it, and you come up with a solution. Then you train to the solution and check how you’re doing.

A central element to any Safety Management System is the employee who reports potential hazards.

I want to encourage reporting of errors throughout the system because this issue is bigger than any one of us.  We want to take a holistic approach to the safety of our aviation system.  We are already working with pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers and air traffic controllers to do this.

Our safety culture demands that when someone sees something – anything – that gives them pause, they raise their hand and say, “I think I’ve noticed something that needs looking at.”

This isn’t about blame—this is about having the professionalism and practices in place to let us know where problems exist.

That’s how we catch errors and improve safety.

We would like to see more companies and airports adopt SMS. And eventually MROs.

Last fall, the FAA released a rule proposing that most commercial airlines in the United States be required to institute SMS.

We also recently made a proposal to require some airports to adopt Safety Management Systems for airfield and ramp areas.

Most carriers already have quality control and quality assurance programs in place. An SMS would formalize those. Carriers would continue to audit their MROs to find out the basics – if the inspection intervals are right – if they are getting good reliability from the company – if they are performing the work the way they are supposed to. While the final responsibility lies with the carriers, the professional reputation and success of the MRO rests on integrity and the good work that you do.

No company or organization is too small for a Safety Management System, but the key is, it doesn’t have to look the same everywhere.

If you have one airplane, you already have an SMS. It’s called a logbook. 

You write down your observations. You find risks and trends. You prioritize and mitigate them.

An SMS is scalable. You can tailor it to the size and complexity of your organization. It can be a series of databases, or it can be a yellow note pad.

More important, though, is that SMS is the right thing to do.  We need to step above and beyond where we are today, and simply complying with the letter of the regulations is not enough to get us there.  We’re also applying SMS principles to FAA oversight and operational activities. Bottom line – our SMS will give us the data we need to connect the dots.

Ideally we want all Safety Management Systems around the world to be in harmony. We all need to define a hazard the same way and share data in a meaningful way. 

We have a lot on our plate at the FAA and I’d like to bring you up to date on advances we’re making, but first, I know a topic of great interest is the status of FAA reauthorization, so I would like to touch on that.

We have had 18 short-term extensions over the last three and a half years. We need the restoration of predictable long-term funding for aviation programs. This is critical to the safety of the traveling public and it will improve our transportation infrastructure, generate new jobs and spur economic growth.

We are pleased that both and the House and the Senate have passed reauthorization bills – we’re moving forward. But, the authorized funding levels in the House bill are well below what the President proposed in his budget. Funding at these levels would degrade the safe and efficient movement of air traffic today and in the future.

We need this reauthorization so we can continue to run the safest and most efficient air transportation system in the world. And to continue our transition to NextGen.

And we are facing a pivotal time in aviation history. We are transforming to NextGen – moving from ground-based radar to satellite-based navigation. Air travel will be more precise, safer, more efficient and more environmentally-friendly. We need to embrace this opportunity and lead the way.

NextGen makes safety sense. It makes business sense. It gets passengers where they want to go more quickly. It cuts fuel burn. And most importantly, it pays for itself with a very positive rate of return.

Delaying infrastructure investments means that the long term cost to our nation – to our passengers and our environment – will far exceed the cost of going forward with the technology today.

Some airlines are already capitalizing on this. They have done the math and have seen the business case for equipping for NextGen. They are capturing real dollar savings.

Alaska Airlines has been a leader in using GPS-based arrival procedures at Juneau International Airport. They can fly precisely through mountainous terrain with low visibility thanks to the higher accuracy of GPS.

The airline estimates it would have cancelled 729 flights last year due to bad weather into Juneau alone if it were not for the GPS-based approaches. Those were passengers who got in. No diversions. No ground holds.

Alaska also is joining the FAA, the Port of Seattle and Boeing, to further develop GPS-based procedures at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. That is part of our “Greener Skies over Seattle” initiative. That project should save literally millions of gallons of fuel annually, cut noise and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

We estimate that airlines using GPS-based arrival procedures at SeaTac will save a total of about $6.8 million per year at today’s fuel prices. And that number is only going to get larger as more airlines equip. With the “Greener Skies over Seattle” initiative, aircraft will emit less carbon dioxide – about 22,400 metric tons less per year. Let me put it to you this way, that’s like taking 4,100 cars off the streets of the Seattle region.

We want to see this safety, efficiency and smaller carbon footprint system-wide.

As an industry we will need to become more nimble and flexible to keep pace with the expected growth and advancements in aviation worldwide.

MROs will need to work harder to attract and retain more technicians to handle the growth.

And as the transformational technologies of NextGen come into the market place, technicians will not only need to be handy with a wrench, but also with software.

Technicians in a NextGen world will need more computer skills and understand systems integration – making sure all components talk with one another.

We’re not far from the day when an airplane will pull up to the gate and connect wirelessly.  It will identify itself and update navigation databases and software. With all of that technological advancement – you have a whole additional realm of security and safety you need to look at. We’re taking steps and we’re working with the industry to help airlines maintain that security posture.

That’s why continuous education is so important for technicians and supervisors. We have to always be working to get better and to stay abreast of the latest technology and trends.

At the FAA, too, we have been thinking about the best way to prepare for the future as we move forward with NextGen. 

Our goal is to reach the next level of safety and prepare our workforce for the future. We want to work closely with industry to implement new technologies and procedures that are sustainable. And we want to work with other countries to establish uniform standards around the globe.

This is a very exciting time in aviation. Together we are creating the template for a new system. 

So, I thank you for your attention and I appreciate your help, your investment and your bright ideas as we mold the Next Generation air transportation system.