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Speech – "Global Aviation Safety"

"Global Aviation Safety"
Michael Huerta, Bethesda, MD
June 17, 2014

European Aviation Safety Conference (EASA)

Thank you for the introduction – it is good to be here today at this conference on global aviation safety.  And, let me also welcome you to the State of Maryland, a state with a very rich transportation history.  It was among the first states in railroad and highway development.  And, today, Maryland is a leader in all modes of transportation, including aviation.    

I think it goes without saying–and we are all very aware–that an effective and solid safety oversight program is paramount for the success of any country’s aviation system.  Safety transcends borders.  It is what we all strive for – the safest aviation system possible for each of our countries. 

The past several decades have shown us many successes in aviation – safety has come a long way, and we are now in an era where accidents are extremely rare.  But, the landscape continues to change, and we must ensure this high level of safety as the industry and technology continue to evolve.

Changes in technology have allowed air traffic to grow substantially over the last several decades.  And it is growing faster in areas of the world outside of the United States and Europe.  Air traffic volumes are expanding in Asia and in Latin America.  And, there is growth in the Middle East and Africa, as well. 

Despite this growth elsewhere, however, the link between the United States and Europe still remains one of the most important aviation relationships in the world.  We operate two of the busiest and most complex airspaces on the planet.  And, others are looking to us to see how we are harmonizing our efforts. 

The safety agreement between the United States and the European Union is a symbol of the importance of this relationship.  It significantly enhances civil aviation regulatory cooperation between the FAA and EASA.  It really is unprecedented.  

The agreement created a framework for aviation safety cooperation that allows the reciprocal acceptance of safety findings and exports of civil aviation products and services between the U.S. and the EU.  It also ensures that we have the flexibility to expand our cooperation in the future, as we identify new areas for collaboration. 

To support relationships such as ours across the Atlantic, I have focused on global leadership as one of our strategic priorities for the FAA.  The FAA’s international engagement is crucial to our success in ensuring a safe and efficient airspace system in the United States.  With today’s global connections, we need one another.  Given the complexity of U.S. and European airspace, and the amount of traffic we handle across the Atlantic, our partnership and leadership have never been more important. 

Another of the priorities we are focusing on at the FAA – and this is in direct support of our safety initiatives – is risk-based decision-making.  Using a risk-based approach helps us identify and mitigate possible causes of accidents to manage safety – and, it increases transparency for system users.  It emphasizes the review of safety data before an accident or incident might occur.  It is a more proactive way of doing business from years past. 

Underlying this shift in safety culture is Safety Management Systems.  These systems rely on safety data from the people who work in the industry: pilots, controllers, mechanics, flight crew, and manufacturers.  The idea is to study data, look for emerging trends, and not wait for accidents to happen.  It’s about identifying the hazards before they become an accident.  It helps us focus on decreasing the commercial fatal accident rate, while we put a priority on our resources based on risk.  We have developed a rule that will require commercial carriers to create Safety Management Systems for their operations.  We also encourage repair stations and general aviation to adopt such systems.

At the global level, sharing information that could potentially affect the safety of flight in any country is crucial, and we need to invest time and effort in joint public-private forums, such as the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), that support this collaboration across borders.  Safety is not a competitive business.  ICAO is also a key link in this endeavor, and provides the global, multilateral platform to accomplish safety advancements. 

We also need to continue to capitalize on the experience of existing groups to share safety information and best practices.  ICAO’s regional groups, of course, are important players in global aviation safety, and have been very proactive.  And, the data-sharing agreement that we have signed with ICAO, IATA, and the European Commission is an important part of this relationship. 

The culture of effective safety oversight starts at the very top of an organization, and filters down to every level.  Each aviation authority, big and small, must maintain a strong safety structure within the global context.  It is our responsibility as leaders in aviation to impart this culture in our organizations. It’s about professionalism and not about blame.  It’s about empowering employees to raise their hands if they see something that concerns them.  

Safety oversight is also more complex than in years past.  Aircraft and parts may be manufactured in many different locations, requiring oversight by many different authorities.  More than ever before, this requires active collaboration between aviation authorities across disparate geographic regions.   

Given the globalization of aviation, industry clearly plays a key role in successful safety oversight.  By working closely with industry, we gain invaluable information that we need to enhance safety.  It is a true collaborative effort, and bolsters the aviation oversight system. 

We also must recognize that aviation safety is not just about direct regulatory oversight.  Modernization of air traffic systems also plays a role in making our skies safer.  Better technologies and more efficient procedures increase aviation safety – and make flying more efficient.  And, efficient operations save passengers and operators both time and money. 

Here in the U.S., we are transforming the way we manage air traffic through the Next Generation Air Transportation system.  We are evolving from ground-based radar to a satellite-based system, and one of the key goals of my agency is to continue NextGen’s implementation.  NextGen is moving air traffic more efficiently, while reducing flight times and emissions.  This has a direct impact on the safety of flight, and plays a key role in its implementation.      

We are nearing the completion of the foundational elements of NextGen. This includes an upgrade to the computer software that controls our en route and terminal airspace.  And this spring, we finished installing a system of ground transceivers across our nation that will allow us to track aircraft with satellite-based technology that is much more precise than radar.  We now have ADS-B coverage nearly everywhere there is radar coverage.  And, we now have it in some places where there isn’t radar coverage, such as mountainous regions of Colorado and low altitude airspace in Alaska.  This enhances safety and efficiency.

We have been working closely together through our cooperative research agreement to achieve NextGen and SESAR interoperability.  We need to continue to coordinate this work with ICAO and other international bodies to ensure that safety standards are keeping pace with our technological and operational improvements.      

In order to stay ahead of the global changes in aviation, we also need to incorporate new users into the aviation system.  We have to certify new aircraft and safely integrate remotely piloted aircraft systems and commercial space operators.

With remotely piloted aircraft, it will require a balance of increasing the regular use of these vehicles, while ensuring our extremely high level of safety.  We have successfully brought many other new technologies into the aviation system over the last several decades, and we can do the same with these. 

We must ensure that remotely piloted aircraft systems are integrated in a measured, systematic manner.  Unmanned aircraft are distinctly different from manned aircraft.  They have a wide range of physical and operational characteristics.  They range in size from very small and hand-held, to the wing span of a major aircraft. 

These systems offer great benefits to many, but we need more data on them.  Here in the United States, we have identified six test sites that will provide us information for better integration.  In fact, just last week, we announced that the State of Nevada’s unmanned aircraft systems test site is ready to conduct research.  Nevada will focus on how air traffic control procedures will change with the integration of new users into the national airspace.  They’ll also monitor how these aircraft will integrate with NextGen.  This is a big step forward, and I know there is strong interest on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere, in these new aircraft.  We must embrace this technology, and integrate them in a measured way. 

Commercial space transportation is another area with great possibilities.  As this business grows, we face important decisions.  Usable airspace is a limited resource, and safety considerations and oversight require close coordination of aviation and space activity. 

With these changes, we face an innovative and ever-changing aviation landscape.  Many nations play important roles.  This new world order is one that we must embrace – one where safety transcends borders.  But, it also requires nimble and effective oversight and public-private partnerships to be truly effective.   

We all know that a number of issues require our attention as regulators – safety, of course, as well as air traffic modernization, and new operators and system users.  But, we can continue to successfully address these challenges by working hand-in-hand, and by partnering across borders.  

Thank you, again, for the invitation to speak with you today.  Best wishes for a successful conference.    


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