"Many Advancements, New Challenges"
Michael G. Whitaker, Philadelphia, PA
December 20, 2013

Fire & Cabin Safety Research Conference

Thanks, Dick [Hill, Fire Safety R&D program manager].  I’m glad to be here.  I want to thank you for your leadership.  Forty-four years at the FAA … and seven of these conferences under your belt.  Talk about commitment to excellence!  I also want to thank your team for the great work you’ve all done in fire safety … and in collaboration with industry and our international partners.  I’d like to welcome the participants from other countries – collaboration on safety is a top priority. 

I know you’ll be hearing a number of research presentations over the next several days.  It’s been said that “research consists of seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought.” 

This conference is about taking a close look at fire and cabin safety.  It’s also about generating innovative solutions to our toughest challenges.  Like all aviation safety concerns, this one requires all of us – government, industry and labor – to work together. 

By working together, we’ve already made astonishing progress.  We’ve driven down the rate of commercial accidents to such a low level.  Between 2008-2012, the number of U.S. commercial passenger fatalities was 45, less than half of what it was in the previous five year period.  And since 2010, more than 2 billion passengers have boarded U.S. air carriers without a fatality.  We want it to stay that way.

We’ve also made tremendous strides in post-crash survivability.  We’ve improved fire safety by requiring more stringent flammability standards, including:

·      fire blocked seat cushions

·      burnthrough resistant insulation

·      cabin walls, ceilings and stowage bins that produce low quantities of heat and smoke.

·      We’ve improved overall cabin safety by installing floor proximity lighting,

·      installing seats that withstand impacts up to 16g,

·      and we’ve improved accessibility to aircraft exits. 

These are just a few of the many advancements we’ve made – all of which are increasing the survivability of aviation accidents. 

The Asiana accident is San Francisco this past July is a case-in-point.  There were 307 passengers and crew members on board … and 304 survived, despite the extensive physical damage that occurred, and the fire that erupted. Of the last six survivable accidents in North America, more than 1,200 passengers and crewmembers survived despite significant physical damage to the aircraft.  These results are a testament to the progress we’ve made. 

So not only are Jet airliner accidents increasingly rare.  When they do happen, they are more survivable than ever before. 

But of course, we’re not satisfied.  We can’t afford to become complacent.  The FAA is committed to making aviation safer and smarter.  We’re committed to enhancing safety through the collection of safety data, sophisticated risk analysis, and a commitment to corrective actions.

We’re also making aviation safer and smarter through research and testing.  We have to stay in front of the issues that affect fire and cabin safety.  As you know, one of the big issues is the safe transportation of lithium batteries—both ion and metal.  The Department of Transportation has banned lithium metal batteries in the cargo hold on passenger flights since 2004.  In regard to carriage of these batteries on cargo flights, we’re conducting research and working with the international community to develop targeted measures to mitigate the safety risks.  The cargo industry has taken a lead role in this effort.  UPS and FedEx have already invested millions of dollars to mitigate the fire risk in their cargo compartments.    

With batteries, as in all aspects of aviation, we support an approach to assess the risk systemically, as an aviation safety problem.  We have to look at the risk from an aircraft operations perspective, an airworthiness perspective, and a dangerous goods perspective. 

This approach is consistent with the conclusions of ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel that transporting lithium batteries as cargo is more than just a “dangerous goods” question.  The risk needs to be evaluated and mitigated from an aviation safety systems perspective.   

With respect to lithium ion batteries, which are shipped daily in large quantities on U.S. flights, the FAA is examining additional methods to ensure their safe transport.  Even though cargo hold fire suppression systems can prevent the spread of a lithium ion battery-induced fire, we are exploring other alternatives to reduce the potential risks.  In the end, any improvement must be practical and cost-effective.    

We have a number of other items on our research agenda.  We’ll be conducting flammability tests on magnesium alloys, which are being considered as a way to make seats lighter.  And we’re looking at the potential flammability of hydrogen fuel cells, which are expected to replace lithium batteries as the next generation of stored electric power.

In 2014, we’ll be conducting a large study on unknown smoke and odor events in the aircraft.  It’s a persistent problem – more than 900 of these events happen each year.  While most of these incidents are not fire related, it’s still a safety concern.  We expect that this study will tell us how many of these events are fire-related and how many are non-fire related, and how many are caused by false detector alarms.  We’re hopeful these results will ultimately help the crew determine the best course of action if smoke or odor is detected.   

Over the longer term, we’re looking at aviation bio fuels.  They’re being developed and flight-tested by aircraft manufacturers and the airlines.  Developing safe, sustainable, alternative fuels is an important goal – we want aviation to be more environmentally friendly.  But we need to examine how bio fuels behave in a fire to determine the possible safety impact.    

We expect that the greatest fire safety challenge may be in commercial space transportation – a growing and important area in our economy.  Ensuring safety, and specifically fire safety, is essential for the industry to demonstrate its viability as we incorporate an increasing number of launches in our airspace.  Unlike conventional aircraft, space transportation vehicles would operate in reduced gravity, with different pressures and oxygen concentrations, and conduct high speed reentries.  These studies will require us to simulate a space environment.   

These are just a few of the areas we plan to research.  But, let me close by reiterating an important point.  While we’ve made major advancements in fire and cabin safety, our work is far from done.  Let’s continue with research.  Let’s continue to fund research.  And let’s continue to work together as an aviation community.  We need to effectively pool our resources to tackle our toughest safety challenges. 

“Research is seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought.”  No doubt, we’ll be looking at the safety challenges this week.  We need to work together to find the right insights and the right solutions as well.        

Thank you and I hope we have a great conference.