"Partnering on Safety and Efficiency"
Michael Huerta, St. Louis, Missouri
May 13, 2014

Regional Airline Association Convention

Thank you, Roger [Cohen].  I’m happy to be here in St. Louis – the home town of Charles Lindbergh.  Next Tuesday marks the 87th anniversary of Lindbergh’s historic flight in The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic.   

To make the long journey of 3,600 miles, Lindbergh’s flight had to be safe and it had to be efficient.  He waited for favorable weather, and configured the cockpit, the engine, and the extra fuel tanks in a way that would maximize his safety. 

He took steps to ensure fuel efficiency.  He wore lighter boots to reduce the plane’s weight.  He used a lighter chair made out of wicker … and even cut his map down to size in order to show only what was essential.  Every ounce made a difference.

We know the rest of the story. 

In his time, Lindbergh did everything he could to make his flight both safe and efficient.  Today, we’re committed to achieving the same result using the latest tools and technologies we have available. 

Regional airlines are a big part of our industry.  You run about 13,000 flights per day.  That's 50 percent of all airline flights.  You provide hundreds of American communities – big and small – with access to safe and efficient travel. 

But you already know that.  I'm here because I want you to know what the FAA is doing to make air travel safer and more efficient.  Regional airlines play a key role in these efforts, which I’ll discuss as well.

Let me start with safety.  One of the FAA’s key strategic priorities is to make aviation safer and smarter.  We’ve driven down the rate of commercial airline accidents to an exceedingly low level.  That’s a credit to government and industry working together. 

But we know there are still safety risks in the airspace system.  And no matter how great the record is, none of us should be satisfied.  We have to build on it. 

Our focus is on identifying and mitigating safety risk.  We want to prevent an accident long before it has a chance to occur.  To do it, we’ll continue to collect and analyze the wealth of safety data that’s now available.  We collect data from many sources including from voluntary safety reports by pilots, air traffic controllers, technicians and others.  We also have automated air traffic and flight data gathering tools.  And we have safety data exchange partnerships with industry. 

Regional air carriers play an essential role in this effort.  Nineteen RAA members support a capability called ASIAS – which stands for Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing.  ASIAS contains safety data from multiple sources across government and industry.  Airline pilots have submitted about 150,000 voluntary safety reports.    

Through these data sources, we can identify areas of highest safety risk … and then prioritize our safety efforts toward these areas.  For example, regional airline pilots alerted us to a potential risk involving the way that RNAV departures were programmed into flight management systems.  Through ASIAS, we were able to conduct an analysis that led to safety enhancements last year, including improving the way that these departures are programmed and designed … and improving the training of pilots and air traffic controllers when using these procedures.  While ASIAS points us to risk areas … it also helps us collect data that measures the success of these corrective actions. 

I ask you to help us expand ASIAS by encouraging your dispatchers, maintenance crews and cabin crews to submit safety reports.  Many of you have these programs set up already.  We just need to encourage more reporting.  By getting their input, along with pilot reports, we’ll have an even more comprehensive view of airline safety risk.  This way, we can take more steps to enhance safety.       

As we use data to determine risk, the FAA will evolve to a safety oversight model where we prioritize our safety inspection efforts.  We’ll have the decision tools to consider stopping certain oversight activities for known system operators that have strong safety management systems of their own.  This way, we can achieve compliance more efficiently. 

Another key part of the safety effort has to do with addressing training issues.  We recently established an air carrier training steering committee, which is helping us determine voluntary initiatives that air carriers can take to improve pilot, flight attendant and dispatcher training.  RAA has a seat at the table, and I thank you for your participation.         

This committee’s efforts will build on federal rules put in place recently regarding pilot qualifications and training.  Last year, we announced an increase in the qualification requirements for first officers who fly for U.S. airlines.  There has been a lot of press about how this requirement contributes to a shortage of qualified pilots.  Congress passed legislation in 2009 mandating that first officers hold an Air Transport Pilot certificate, which increased the flight hour requirements.  The rule, however, did give the FAA the authority to provide some flexibility in how that standard could be met.  The FAA broadened the flexibility as much as we could, in an effort to address industry concerns.   

But Congress’ intent was clear.  They wanted to increase the qualification and experience requirements for pilots.  At my meeting with the board this morning, we discussed strengthening the pilot pipeline, but this issue requires the cooperation of the whole industry.  There are many short-term and long-term challenges.  I think all of us in the aviation community can work together to meet that challenge and our shared goal of safety.    

We need to continue to work together on safety … whether it be contributing to safety data collection and analysis … taking steps to enhance training … or other kinds of activities.  We all have a responsibility to raise the bar.

Of course, as Lindbergh knew … and as we all know … aviation must be efficient as well.  Not just for the FAA, but efficient for you.  One of my priorities is to deliver benefits to you through technology and infrastructure.   

On this note, I’m very proud to say that we’re delivering.  Through NextGen, we’re putting in place technologies and procedures that are saving time and fuel … and enabling greater access to airports.  We look to you, as our partners, to be equipped and capable to take advantage of these benefits.   

Let me tell you about some of the progress we’re making. NextGen involves transitioning our airspace system from a ground-based radar system to a satellite-based system that shares more precise information with more users.  To achieve this transition, the FAA must upgrade the automation in our en route and terminal service facilities.  Industry has waited a long time for these upgrades … and I’m happy to report that we’re nearing completion.    

Right now, 18 of our 20 en route centers have started running the new system.  And 15 of those 18 are using it exclusively to control air traffic, instead of the legacy system of the 1960s.  We expect that all 20 centers will be running exclusively on the new system by March of next year, which will enable us to retire the legacy system.

We’re also upgrading the computer system that runs the lower altitude airspace closer to airports.  This project is implementing a common automation platform at more than 150 terminal facilities throughout the country.  These upgrades are essential for us to unleash the benefits of NextGen.      

Why are these upgrades important?  Our legacy automation was limited by its processing speed … and by its capacity to accept radar inputs.  In the terminal environment, some facilities only receive input from the one radar that sits at that airport. 

But with these new systems, we can process more data, more efficiently, from more sensors.  All of this leads to improved efficiency for the entire airspace and gives us the foundation to employ other NextGen tools that track aircraft much more precisely than radar.  Using satellite-based surveillance enhances safety and will move us towards more direct routes that save time and money.  

We call this capability Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast.  I’m proud to say that in March, the FAA completed the baseline installation of the network of ground transceivers that will accomplish this.  More than a hundred facilities are currently using ADS-B technology to separate traffic.  This is a big accomplishment, as we gear up for the 2020 equipage mandate.  When we fully implement ADS-B, and all operators are equipped, we’ll be able to make even more efficient use of our nation’s airspace.   

One of ADS-B’s benefits is that we can track aircraft in places that don’t have radar coverage, like in the mountains or over water.  A similar technology that some of you have benefited from is called Wide Area Multilateration, or WAM, which we have in place in Juneau, Alaska, and at ski town airports in Colorado.  WAM employs multiple small remote sensors throughout an area to compensate for terrain obstructions.  It improves access to airports in bad weather.  With WAM, we’re seeing fewer delays … fewer diversions … and fewer gallons of fuel burned. 

Operators like SkyWest Airlines and others are achieving greater access at Colorado airports like Hayden, Montrose and Gunnison.

Another way that NextGen enables greater access to more airports is through a process of fine tuning the GPS signal over a wide area.  We call this capability WAAS, and it allows us to conduct approaches at airports when visibility to the runway is reduced due to bad weather or other conditions.  WAAS procedures provide pilots with a precise landing path that they can see on their cockpit instrument panel.  It’s beneficial for aircraft that need access to smaller and medium-sized airports that can’t afford expensive ground-based landing equipment. 

Nationwide, we’ve already published about 4,000 of these procedures at about 1,700 airports.  Regional operators like Horizon Air are seeing benefits in their flights throughout the west coast and Alaska.  They estimate a fuel savings of more than 54,000 gallons per year through the use of these approaches. Just like Lindbergh, we believe in economy.  Every ounce of fuel counts.

We’re also seeing NextGen’s benefits in places like Memphis and Louisville airports.  In the fall of 2012, we revised wake turbulence separation standards at Memphis Airport.  This means that aircraft can safely land and depart – one behind another – slightly closer than before.  We’re seeing a 20 percent increase in airport capacity at Memphis … and of course, with less time waiting to take off and land, operators are saving on fuel.  While carriers like FedEx and UPS see great benefits, regional operators also benefit during peak traffic times during the day because of the overall improvement in efficiency and access to the airport. 

As you can see, we’re making great progress with NextGen.  We’re looking to regional operators to do your part and equip, so we can expand these benefits.  And we look to you to continue to share safety data … and work with us on other safety efforts … so we can make our safe system even safer. 

Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis changed the future of aviation.  With a strict adherence to the essentials of his mission, Lindbergh pushed the limits of aviation.  As we leave his city, let’s take some of this great spirit with us.  By working together, we can open new doors and shape the course of aviation for decades to come.