"Enhancing Safety on All Fronts"
Michael G. Whitaker, Washington, DC
July 18, 2013

ALPA Air Safety Forum

Thank you, Captain Moak.  I’m glad to be here.  I’ve had the chance to work with ALPA in various capacities for the last two decades so it’s good to be back among friends. In my new role, I want to thank ALPA for the great work you do and for being a solid partner with us in efforts to enhance aviation safety.  Your professionalism is an essential component to these efforts. 

You’ve had a very good forum this week, with lots of open discussion on safety, security and emergency response. And your conference is timely, given the events of the last couple of weeks.

  • Our thoughts are with the passengers and crew of Asiana Flight 214 and their families. The FAA is actively supporting the NTSB’s investigation, and we will continue to do so throughout the process.
  • We are also fully supporting the NTSB investigation into the crash of an air taxi in Alaska earlier this month, where 10 people were killed.  Our thoughts are with their families as well. 
  • Additionally, we are participating in the British government’s investigation of the fire aboard an Ethiopian Airways Boeing 787 in London. There is an FAA specialist at Heathrow Airport assisting in that investigation.   

In all these cases, we’re doing what we do – finding out what happened, why it happened, and how we can prevent it from happening again.  That’s our core mission. As we do that, it’s important to underscore how very safe our aviation system has become.  Looking at the Asiana accident, it’s clear that our advancements in cabin safety have given people more time to evacuate.  Improvements like more stringent flammability standards, flame resistant insulation, and seats that withstand impacts up to 16Gs. These and other advancements have increased the survivability of aviation accidents. 

Of course, we’re not satisfied.  These recent events remind us that no matter how safe the system is, we still have work to do.  We remain committed to a proactive approach to safety – one that relies on collaboration between government and industry.  We’re doing this through more sophisticated safety data collection, risk analysis, and prioritization of corrective actions.  All of you help this effort every time you fill out an Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) report. 

Air traffic controllers are doing the same through Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP).  We’ve made nearly 200 safety enhancements over the past five years, thanks to controllers who came forward and reported a problem.

In addition, the FAA is using automated air traffic data gathering tools.  Through these tools, we’ve collected close to a million safety-related reports.  In all, we’re using safety information from 185 data sources throughout the industry. We have 43 air carriers and six corporate members participating in the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing System (ASIAS). By sharing information in an open and transparent way – and working with both labor and industry through forums such as InfoShare – we can better connect the dots to identify safety problems.  By doing this, we’re creating a smarter and therefore safer system. 

Rules are also a big part of the safety effort.  We’ve strengthened federal rules regarding pilot qualifications and fatigue.  And we’re working on the rule to enhance pilot training.

Last week, we announced an increase in the qualification requirements for first officers who fly for U.S. airlines.  All pilots in 121 operations will be required to have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, with 1,500 hours of flight time. The rule does allow for a restricted ATP if they come from the military or have a college degree based on an approved aviation curriculum –but they won't get the full privileges of an ATP until they meet the 1500 hour requirement. And all applicants for this certificate will have to complete new FAA approved training to ensure the pilot has the proper qualifications and experience to fly for an airline.       

The rule also requires first officers to have a type rating with additional training and testing specific to the airplanes they fly.  In addition, co-pilots will need a minimum of 1,000 flight hours in the right seat before serving as a captain for a U.S. airline.  This requirement will help mitigate the risk of a first officer transitioning to captain before he or she is ready. The new rule will ensure that first officers have a stronger foundation of aeronautical knowledge and experience before they fly for an air carrier. 

This fall, we also expect to issue new requirements for greater stall and stick-pusher training.  These rules, along with the rules we published in 2011 to prevent pilot fatigue, will enhance the safety of the system.   

Safety will always remain our primary purpose at FAA, but we also need to operate an efficient system. Upgrading how we control and operate in our air space – moving from a radar-based to a satellite-based navigation system – is imperative.   The NextGen technologies and procedures we are putting in place today guide aircraft on more direct routes, save fuel and decrease delays.  It’s good for business and good for the environment.  

But as the foundational elements get put in place, there is much more to do: adding new capabilities; building new procedures; and retraining users of the system.  In the past five years, we have made much progress and we’ve met more than 80 percent of our NextGen milestones – no easy feat with a project of this complexity.

ADS-B, for example, which is part of our core infrastructure, shifts the nation's air traffic control system from one that relies on radar technology to a system that uses precise location data from global satellites.  Currently, two-thirds of the United States is covered by roughly 560 ADS-B radio stations.  We’re on track to have all 700-plus ADS-B ground stations installed nationwide by next year.  As aircraft equip with ADS-B, more precise surveillance will enable us to more efficiently separate aircraft and reduce delays. 

This is already happening.  Last month, a Jet Blue flight from Florida to the West Coast was facing a weather delay. Because it is equipped with ADS-B, we were able to reroute the aircraft on an ADS-B path over the Gulf of Mexico, which allowed it to take off on time. The ADS-B route shaved off about 100 miles from the flight's initial path, resulting in hundreds of gallons of fuel savings. We’re also making progress with our Data Communications trials in Memphis and Newark.  By sending and receiving digital instructions between controllers and pilots, we’ll be able to increase overall system efficiency, while reducing the likelihood of hear-back and read-back errors.  FedEx, UPS, United, and British Airways, among others, are utilizing Data Comm as part of our trials.  We plan to start initial operations of Data Comm in equipped control towers beginning in 2016 and in high-altitude control centers in 2019.  

Another example is Atlanta, where NextGen is safely allowing jets to take off on headings that are slightly closer together.  This small change has resulted in a 10 percent increase in departures per hour from the world’s busiest airport.  We estimate that last year customers saved more than 11,000 hours of waiting in line to take-off last year.  We expect these improvements will save the airlines $20 million this year in Atlanta alone.  We intend to bring this type of efficiency to other major airports.

Finally, with the Metroplex initiative, we’re working to decrease congestion in busy metro areas.  This is a very targeted deployment of NextGen technology that delivers immediate and tangible benefits to the most intensive users of our air space. We have initiatives under way in north Texas and Houston, northern and southern California, Atlanta, Charlotte and right here in Washington, D.C.  Airlines flying into the D.C. metro area have already started using these NextGen procedures.  We estimate they will save $2.3 million in fuel per year and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7,300 metric tons.  And these benefits will increase as we develop more procedures and their usage becomes more widespread.

Helping deploy and build NextGen was a principle reason why I came to FAA.  I believe it is our country’s most important infrastructure project, and we need to stay the course as we deploy these new technologies and procedures.  

And make no mistake, implementation is not always easy.  Ultimately, pilots and controllers have to be comfortable using these new innovations.  I encourage you to safely embrace these innovations and let us know how we can safely increase the comfort and acceptance level among operators and controllers.

Before I close, I want to come back to our safety imperative. While we’ve made tremendous progress in commercial airline safety, we still have a big challenge with general aviation safety.  Over the last five years, we’ve seen our GA accident rate fluctuate, but it’s not steadily improving as we would like to see.  As of yesterday, we’ve already had 197 fatal accidents this fiscal year, which have killed 343 people.  Forty percent of fatal GA accidents are due to loss of control in flight – mainly stalls.  Or, pilots don’t pay attention to the basics – like failing to check fuel prior to takeoff, or trying to beat the weather.  I know many of you here – and other ALPA members – remain active in general aviation.  I ask you to engage fully in this issue – to reach out to your fellow GA pilots and stress the need to pay attention to basics and sign up for FAA safety seminars. 

Thank you again, Captain Moak.  I appreciate the help and dedication of ALPA in all of the challenges that we face, and I look forward to continuing our partnership in the years ahead.