"Communicating for Safety"
Michael Huerta, Atlanta. Georgia
February 2, 2012

Archie League Medal of Safety Awards Banquet


Good evening, and thank you, Paul (Rinaldi), for that kind introduction. I’m thrilled to be here in Atlanta.

Tonight we are recognizing the outstanding work of 15 controllers whose expertise and calm thinking under pressure helped save the lives of pilots and passengers.  

These controllers charted a course for pilots facing low fuel, bad weather, icing, mechanical failures, hypoxia and more.

And while we are highlighting the achievements of these individuals tonight, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the 15,000 controllers—and all the professionals at the FAA—who are doing excellent work each and every day of the year.

And I must acknowledge four people who are leading this organization through collaboration: FAA Chief Operating Officer David Grizzle; Deputy Chief Operating Officer Rick Ducharme; NATCA President Paul Rinaldi and NATCA Executive Vice President, Trish Gilbert. Thank you for all that you do. We have truly come a long way in the last two and half years or so, and it’s in large part due to the leadership of David, Rick, Paul and Trish.

Now, the Super Bowl is only a few days away, and even though the Packers didn’t make it, I thought it was fitting to share a quote from Vince Lombardi, which illustrates the importance of teamwork.

He said, “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

And so it goes with air traffic control. Even though only a handful of controllers are being recognized tonight, the fine work of thousands of controllers is what helps to make America’s airspace the safest in the world.

I want to congratulate the award recipients and celebrate the commitment to safety exemplified by these controllers.

As Secretary LaHood emphasized earlier today, safety is our mission.

In the last 35 months—that’s almost three years—more than two billion people have flown on U.S. commercial aircraft without a fatal accident.

In large part, that’s because of you…because the men and women of the FAA make sure those flights are safe.

FAA inspectors make sure the aircraft is safe to fly. FAA technical specialists make sure the radar and navigational beacons work. And FAA air traffic controllers guide the pilots.

Other FAA employees support these important functions.  And of course, thousands of dedicated pilots, maintenance personnel, airport operators and others in the aviation industry are critical to the safety record as well.

Our goal is to maintain our safety record and improve upon it. Now is not the time to become complacent.  Instead, we have to remain vigilant. America expects precision and perfection from the aviation industry, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The traveling public also wants—and deserves—an air traffic system that is efficient and that runs on time.

And part of that means maintaining and improving our aviation infrastructure.

As President Obama said during his State of the Union address last week, we need an America that is built to last.

America’s runways, taxiways, air traffic control facilities and terminals enable people and cargo to arrive safely and on schedule. Our aviation infrastructure, combined with NextGen procedures, is the foundation for thriving commerce and a healthy economy.

In the past year we have worked very hard to make safety and infrastructure improvements in many areas.

We have improved runway safety areas at airports across the country. And we’ve improved situational awareness on the airport surface with ASDE-X at our 35 busiest airports. This gives controllers a more clear and precise picture of activity on the airfield.

We need an economy that is built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values. And the aviation industry is doing its fair share.

In our continuing commitment to safety, last year the FAA finalized a long-awaited flight and duty time rule for pilots, ensuring that crews receive more rest and better rest. This is a great leap forward for safety.

Let me add that we have also taken steps to address fatigue issues in the controller workforce.  

Thanks to the hard work of NATCA and management members of the fatigue work group, the FAA has implemented several changes to mitigate the impacts of fatigue in air traffic control and thus enhance safety.

The work group made the recommendation, and we adopted it – to have a minimum of nine consecutive hours off duty preceding the start of a day shift. This change increased the time available for the most valuable type of rest, which is night-time sleep.

We have taken further measures to address fatigue, including increasing midnight shift staffing to a minimum of two persons. This is to facilitate human interaction in the control room and the cab and to allow for break periods away from operational position.

As an additional safety measure, we have introduced challenge and response procedures on midnight shifts when any air traffic controller is alone for more than 15 minutes.

We believe that these measures have had a positive effect and have enhanced safety. And we are continuing to work collaboratively with NATCA and PASS to reduce the impact of fatigue on our workforce. 

Your efforts in the realm of safety are a core contribution to the entire aviation industry.

And controllers will continue to be a key part of what this agency does going forward.

Everything we do revolves around the safe and efficient movement of air traffic. Personally, I look forward to keeping that going. I look forward to working with you and to continuing the collaborative relationship we have forged over the last few years. We need your engagement and support to move towards a system that’s safer and more efficient.

So how do I see NATCA and the FAA moving forward?

Well, clearly, this will be a collaborative effort to evolve our airspace. The transformation to NextGen is a pivotal period in aviation history and what you do every day will continue to evolve.

Tonight’s awards honor not only the recipients, but recognize the evolution of air traffic control in the United States. Archie League is considered the first air traffic controller. He used a checkered flag for GO and a red flag for HOLD at St. Louis Airport back in the 1920s. His system was simple, yet effective.

In the years that have followed, we have progressed from bonfires and flags to radar and ground-based navigational aides. And now we are moving to GPS.

But there’s something that hasn’t changed at all.  What remains the same is the commitment of air traffic controllers and the expertise and pride in moving this system into the future.

And we really do need to move our system forward. NextGen is the way of the future and we cannot afford to be left behind. Collaboration is all the more important with the technological changes that form the foundation for NextGen.

So let me say “thank you” for the progress on ERAM.

We now have initial operating capability in six new centers, in addition to Salt Lake City and Seattle where we’ve been operating continuously– namely Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland.  

Your input was crucial in testing ERAM and making it operational.  This is not just a computer system, and nobody knows that better than you. This is the foundation of NextGen and it’s a huge transformation.

Your collaboration in creating NextGen airspace procedures, such as Required Navigation Performance and Advanced Area Navigation (RNAV) routes is vital to helping flights operate more efficiently and in a more environmentally-friendly manner.  I place a very high priority on continuing to roll out these procedures…and, once we have them in place, to make sure they are used.

Every air traffic manager and his or her union were trained last year on how to constructively talk with each other—through workgroups—about technological procedures and airspace changes. This process gives everybody a seat at the table before final decisions are made. This improves our efficiency and effectiveness and it improves safety.

And safety is why we are here. In order to handle the expected growth in air traffic and the changes that NextGen will bring, we must constantly improve and enhance our safety culture.

One way to do that is to improve professional standards. This effort has been rolled out in the last few months to two dozen air traffic facilities across the nation.  I congratulate you for that; it’s a huge step forward.

In this program we are teaching controllers how to constructively talk with each another about safety before an issue arises to the level of requiring corrective action at a higher management level.

We are putting this program in place to facilitate this, but we need all of you to be open to having those discussions and provide us with information.

If you are separating aircraft adequately, yes, you followed the rules. But if there was a better, more precise way to do it, then we need to know it, and we need to move in that direction.  So I ask you to challenge yourselves to think about safety in the broadest sense and to talk with your peers and managers openly and constructively about it.

Because you are on the front lines, controlling traffic, you bear a large responsibility. I’ve always liked NATCA’s motto, “We guide you home.” And we are very glad that you do.

But we have to change our mindset to embrace the transformation to the future. Our airspace is going to become more complex. It is going to be able to handle more traffic. And the tools of NextGen are going to allow us to do that.

Everyone needs to think about safety as something more than the immediate accomplishment of one task or one job. We need to look at how we do something and whether we did it in the best manner.

It is the role of each and every one of us in the FAA to be concerned with ensuring our system is as safe as it can be. This does not fall outside the job description of anyone whether they control traffic or not, whether you are in management or not. We are all in it together.

The path ahead is going to be one of transformation. We have done some really exciting things in the past few years because we have done them together. It has not been easy, but we have succeeded because we are working together through tough issues with open and honest dialogue. We have a huge checklist ahead. But we will get there. We will collaborate and we will maintain the safest system in the world. So thank you and I am looking forward to hearing more about the amazing work our controllers have done.

###