"The Key to Safety"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
June 16, 2014

ALPA: Symposium on International Data Programs

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Sean [Cassidy], and good morning.  Let me offer a special welcome to our international guests.  The distance you have traveled is a testament to the importance of our shared mission: to enhance safety.  

This year marks the 100th anniversary of commercial flight.  We’ve seen great advancements:  from the jet age to the glass cockpit to non-stop routes across the globe.  Since its first flight, commercial aviation has carried more than 65 billion passengers.  Aviation is evolving quickly.  We’ll see the next 65 billion in much less time … the next 15 years. 

Because of that rapid growth, one of our top priorities is to make sure that the FAA continues to play a leadership role for safety on the global stage.  We want global aviation to be safer, more efficient and greener.  And we want to set the standards for safety and technology around the world.  The pilots and all the aviation professionals here in this room help us make all of that possible.  Let me be clear here:  without partnership, there can be no leadership. 

It’s no surprise that we’re not alone in our desire to spread the safety net.  Within the last six months, I’ve been to Colombia, Singapore, Europe, China and Japan.  The common thread for each is the discussion about how the international aviation community will achieve smarter regulation for safety and cost effective measures to achieve a vibrant aviation system.  

Data sharing needs to be part of any system that’s striving for safety. Data sharing and international partnership go hand in hand.  As you’ll hear from Peggy Gilligan, and throughout the day, data sharing is pivotal if we’re to enhance safety worldwide.  And I think there’s little doubt that data sharing has the potential to be the single-greatest catalyst for aviation safety in the decades to come. 

It’s already taking hold.  The Commercial Aviation Safety Team signed an agreement with ICAO’s Pan American Regional Aviation Safety Group to share U.S. operator experience at 22 Latin American and Caribbean airports.  The Regional Safety Group has identified 30 safety enhancement initiatives for runway safety, controlled flight into terrain and loss of control in flight.  Maybe most importantly, this agreement lets the Pan American Safety Group and the Commercial Aviation Safety Team share detailed data through the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing system. This system allows us to discover common, systemic safety problems proactively … spanning multiple aspects of the air transportation system. 

That’s not the only activity.  In March, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team and the International Air Transportation Association signed an information sharing agreement.  It’s similar to what we have with the regional aviation safety groups through the Americas and in Asia.  It calls for us to exchange top-level safety risks and mitigation strategies. 

In addition to spreading a global safety net, we’re also focusing on risk based decision making.  The goal here is to make aviation safer and smarter. 

The U.S. commercial fatality risk already is at an historic low.  In fact, it’s 83 percent lower than it was in 1996.  Because of this success, it’s imperative that we be smart in our approach to safety.  Risk-based decision making puts the greatest risks at the top of the list.  We pay attention to what’s going to pay the biggest dividend. 

Not every project or program can be the top priority, nor should it be.  The corollary is that without a risk-based approach, it’s difficult to know what your top priority is supposed to be.  With a risk based approach to decision making, we sharpen our safety efforts – we identify and then address higher risk areas. 

As we do this, the FAA will evolve to a safety oversight model where we prioritize our safety inspection efforts.  We’ll have the decision tools to consider reducing certain oversight activities for known system operators that have strong safety management systems of their own.  This way, we can achieve compliance in a more efficient and collaborative manner. 

Our focus on international safety and risk-based decision making lends itself to a discussion about data.  If you walk away with one thing and one thing only from what it is I have to say this morning, let it be this:  the data has to come from you.  It is important that you keep providing it.  And if your organization does not participate in data-sharing efforts, I ask you to encourage it to do so.

Encourage your dispatchers, maintenance crews and cabin crews to submit safety reports.  Many of you have these programs set up already.  We just need to promote more reporting.  By getting their input, along with pilot reports, we’ll have an even more comprehensive view of the system safety risk.  This way, we can take more steps to enhance safety.

Our safety mitigation efforts are only as good as the data they’re fed with.  It’s that simple.

Working together, aviation professionals have created a system that is literally safe beyond words.  Through dint of effort and sheer hard work, we’ve reduced the frequency of commercial accidents dramatically.  As you’ll hear from the panels later today, that didn’t happen on its own.  Taking the next step won’t happen on its own, either.

CAST and ASIAS are where this next step will happen.  These are the keys to the data sharing that will unlock the future of accident prevention.  But they only work if partnership is the active ingredient.  There are 45 airlines participating in ASIAS now.  That’s a lot, but there’s always room for more.

And I must emphasize—as the very first panel will do—that none of this is set up to be punitive.  Punishment is not the intent.  What we want—what this system needs—is for each of the professionals in it to step forward with voluntary information about safety issues. 

We’ve seen examples already throughout the system—John Duncan can give you chapter and verse—where things that we thought were “one-of-a-kind” were happening more frequently than hoped.  Let’s face it, when you’re in a system that’s as safe as ours, you have a system that’s run by professionals who are experts at spotting problems and then fixing them.  When it comes to doing things right, commercial pilots are the perfect example. 

I’m focusing on that intervening step between spotting the problem and fixing it.  That’s the place where information needs to come forward.  That’s key if we’re going to isolate, understand and remediate problems.  It’s key if we’re going to drive the commercial accident rate down further.  It’s key if we’re going to extend the net of aviation safety to the four corners of the globe.

In closing, allow me to underscore a point about safety.  We are not in the position to legislate or prevent every conceivable issue or risk or problem.  The ultimate end-state for all of this lies within voluntary compliance.  Where the professional follows or adopts the best practice simply because it is the best practice.  We can’t get to the next level of safety if people do what’s right only if there’s a rule that says they must.  Or they don’t follow the best practice because there isn’t a requirement for them to do so.

After the wrong runway departure accident at Lexington in 2006, we learned several lessons.  The most important one was that data – when looked at collectively across the industry – was available for us to connect the dots. Data showed us that we had gaps in our safety nets.

The real question becomes:  so how do you prevent this from happening again?  The rulemaking process, by design, takes years.  But what happened after Lexington instead happened quickly.  Airlines began to put technologies like moving map displays and runway awareness advisory systems in the cockpit.  Not because they had to but because they should. 

Voluntary compliance saves time, but more importantly, it saves lives.

This conference is dedicated to the fact that partnership is critical to safety.  Data sharing very clearly is the future of aviation safety.  We depend on inputs from the professionals who have stepped forward, groups like ALPA, and the airlines themselves.  It all depends on you, and I want to thank you for your willingness to step forward. 

Aviation is evolving rapidly.  I imagine that a hundred years from now, the professionals who follow us will enjoy the benefits of the foundation we have put in place with data sharing.  The system they use will be shaped by the decisions and the choices we make today.  I look forward to working with you—together—to give them the most solid foundation we can build.  Thank you.