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Speech – "Redefining Business As Usual"

"Redefining Business As Usual"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
September 22, 2016

Aero Club

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for having me.

It’s always a pleasure to be back at the Aero Club of Washington.

This was one of my first stops after getting confirmed as FAA Administrator in 2013. In fact, I was sworn in here. And I get the same feeling today as I did then.

It’s an honor to address a forum that has hosted so many of the giants from our nation’s rich aviation history.

Late last month, we lost one of those giants.

Joe Sutter, the “Father of the Boeing 747” and a recipient of the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, passed away at the age of 95.

Joe was an inspiration and mentor for three generations of engineers.

Although he was officially retired, he maintained an office at Boeing and frequently met with potential customers. Nobody knew more about “his” airplane than Joe.

With its wide body and distinctive upper deck, the 747 is one of the world’s most recognizable aircraft. But that almost wasn’t the case.

When the 747 first came out in 1968, Boeing anticipated selling no more than 400 planes. It was supposed to be a stopgap aircraft that would soon be eclipsed by supersonic transport.

Obviously that didn’t happen.

Joe and his colleagues at Boeing learned a valuable lesson that’s just as true today as it was then: when it comes to aviation, our world is constantly changing. The winners are those who adapt.

Some of this change is cause for celebration. Thanks to the work we’ve done in conjunction with industry, flying in the United States is safer than it’s ever been.

We’ve all but eliminated the traditional causes of commercial airline accidents.

The low-hanging fruit is gone – but that doesn’t mean our job is done.

Now more than ever, aviation is an international – and interconnected – industry. When an airplane crashes, our entire community feels it. These tragedies don’t just happen in one country, or to one airline. They happen to all of us, and we share collectively in the loss.

How do we prevent these incidents from occurring? How do we improve our processes and procedures? How do we make the world’s safest form of transportation even safer?

When you get down to it, that’s the true underlying product of our worldwide industry: safety.

And if we’re going to continue raising the bar on safety, we have to get creative.

Creativity has always kept aviation moving forward – pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

The same spirit that inspired Wilbur Wright to fill notebook after notebook with drawings of birds drove the imaginations of modern-day engineers to design the GE9X – a jet engine wider than the fuselage of a Boeing 737.

So how does an industry that’s always changing intersect with an agency whose mission of safety and efficiency remains the same?

That’s the question people want me to answer anytime I speak to groups like this one. And it’s one we talk about on a daily basis at the FAA.

When I started thinking about what I wanted to say today, I went back and read some of my previous Aero Club speeches.

It was interesting to see how much our industry – and the FAA – have changed in just that short period of time.

Three years ago, drones were – pardon the expression – barely a blip on our radar. Today, hardly a day goes by that I don’t deal with them.

I’d even say there’s no better parallel for what’s happening in aviation as a whole than what’s happening with drones.

Unmanned aircraft have gone from being a niche interest to an actual segment of aviation that’s growing at an unprecedented pace.

They’re transforming industries like filmmaking and agriculture.

They’re improving the safety of our transportation infrastructure by inspecting miles of rail tracks and pipelines.

And they’re tackling jobs that can be dangerous for people or other aircraft to do, such as search-and-rescue operations.

With all of these options, unmanned aircraft usage has soared in recent years – but not without its share of growing pains.

Safely integrating drones into a system that already includes everything from commercial airliners and business jets to helicopters and general aviation airplanes is one of our industry’s top priorities.

Last summer, we saw numerous reports about unmanned aircraft interfering with wildfire operations. Some were spotted too close to airplanes and airports. One even crashed into Arthur Ashe Stadium during the U.S. Open.

The FAA needed to take action – to educate operators about airspace rules so they could fly safely, and to help law enforcement identify people who weren’t obeying the rules.

We decided to create an online registration system for unmanned aircraft last October. And since we were looking ahead to a holiday season where drones were at the top of thousands of wish lists, it would have to be launched before Christmas – less than two months away.

When we announced this ambitious schedule, I heard from a number of people – some in this room – who thought we’d made a promise we couldn’t keep.

After all, government isn’t supposed to be able to work on that kind of timeline.

Getting it done required some outside-the-box thinking within the FAA. We didn’t let well-worn internal processes dictate how we’d achieve our goal. Instead, we charted new paths.

We solicited advice from a task force of heavy-hitters from the aviation and technology industries. Daily meetings between employees at every level of the agency improved coordination and allowed for real-time troubleshooting.

And it turned out that a bit of chaos and uncertainty, coupled with an immovable deadline, was a pretty powerful focusing mechanism.

Our drone registration system was up and running before Santa could start his annual flight. Nine months later, more than 550,000 users have registered.

To put that in perspective, we only have 320,000 registered manned aircraft – and it took us 100 years to get there.

This success is a testament to how much can be achieved when government and industry work together.

Last week, we took a step to formalize that partnership with the first meeting of our Drone Advisory Committee.

The DAC is chaired by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and includes representatives from the technology and aviation industries, labor organizations, and state and local governments.

I’ve asked this committee to help us prioritize our unmanned aircraft integration activities, including the development of future regulations and policies.

Now we didn’t start from scratch when we came up with the idea for the DAC. It’s closely modeled after our NextGen Advisory Committee – another collaboration with industry that has been essential to the FAA’s work modernizing our air traffic system.

The United States has always been a global aviation leader. And that’s because we haven’t shied away from making the big investments – the kind that can transform the way we move people and goods, not for a few years, but for generations.

When we first started thinking about what it would take to modernize our air traffic system for the 21st century, we knew that “going small” wasn’t an option.

NextGen is nothing less than the reinvention of the way we manage air traffic. It touches every phase of flight – from takeoff, to navigation, to landing.

But the thing about a transformative project like NextGen is: it’s not easy. One of my predecessors compared it to changing the tire on a moving car.

I’d amend that slightly. It’s like changing the engine on a moving jetliner. At altitude.

If you want to get a big project right, you need time and you need resources. But just as important, you need buy-in from a wide variety of stakeholders.

These foundational pieces are now in place.

We upgraded the computer platform that had its roots in the 1960s.

We installed ground infrastructure nationwide to support satellite-based aircraft tracking, and we launched a $10 million rebate program this week that will make it easier for general aviation pilots to equip their planes to take advantage of it.

The good news is that we’re on track to meet our NextGen objectives by 2025. But NextGen is delivering real, measurable benefits today – for airlines, for businesses, and for the American people.

And it’s happening at an accelerated pace that’s being driven by industry needs.

Let me give you an example. Data Communications, or Data Comm, is a NextGen technology that allows air traffic controllers and pilots to transmit flight plans and other essential safety messages by text instead of time-consuming radio transmissions.

Now that seems pretty simple – and even a little boring – at first glance. But Data Comm’s true potential is obvious as soon as you see it in action.

Airlines stay on schedule, packages get delivered on time, and passengers get off the ground and to their destinations more quickly.

In fact, we estimate that Data Comm will save operators more than $10 billion over the next 30 years – along with saving the FAA about $1 billion.

We started working on Data Comm about four years ago. Engaging with stakeholders – and getting them on board with the technology and its benefits – was one of our first priorities.

We launched trials at Newark and Memphis International Airports to test equipment and develop flight deck and tower procedures. And we worked closely with partners like United Airlines, FedEx, and UPS to measure the fuel and time savings Data Comm could provide.

The results were quite impressive.

It wasn’t long before we heard from our airline partners on the NextGen Advisory Committee. They asked us to prioritize Data Comm so they could take advantage of its capabilities more quickly and in more locations.

We had originally created a plan that would widely deploy Data Comm at airports over the course of three years. Instead we used the lessons learned in Newark and Memphis to condense it to one.

At the beginning of this year, Data Comm was operational at five airports.

Today, it’s up and running at 44 air traffic control towers nationwide, including major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and right here in Washington, DC.

We plan to have it in more than 50 towers by the end of 2016. That’s nearly two years ahead of schedule.

NextGen technologies like Data Comm are game-changers. They’re making us more efficient, saving millions of dollars in fuel costs, and reducing the creation of greenhouse gases.

But as with any major effort, there are challenges.

Over the last two decades, we’ve made significant progress in reducing aircraft noise for people living around airports. Advances in aircraft technology, operational procedures, and programs with airports all work together to mitigate noise.

But as individual aircraft noise levels have decreased, we’ve seen increases in the number of operations, particularly at night, and in the number of people living around airports.

Using NextGen procedures also sometimes results in changes in flight patterns and noise for communities around airports.

As a result, we’ve seen an increasing level of public debate, political interest, and even litigation related to aircraft noise.

The FAA has stepped up its public engagement efforts across the United States in response to these trends. Most recently, we held meetings in Cleveland and Detroit, as well as here in the DC metro area.

But the FAA can’t solve this problem alone. All aviation stakeholders, from local airport authorities to the airlines, must take an ownership stake on noise issues.

Some of you already have, and I thank you for that.

Now we need to do more.

We need to work together to engage communities early and often – and that means meeting them where they live.

We need to listen to people’s concerns and make an earnest effort to find solutions that work for everyone.

There’s no question that NextGen advancements are revolutionizing the way the FAA manages air traffic. But technology isn’t just changing the way we do business.

Manufacturers are taking tremendous strides forward in aircraft design and production. To keep pace with these innovations, the FAA is redefining its role as a regulator.

For a long time, the FAA told manufacturers how to build a safe airplane. We required specific technologies with precise design elements.

But this system became strained as the industry evolved. Manufacturers kept coming to us with new ideas, and our certification processes struggled to keep up.

We made some improvements around the edges over the years, but they were often incremental and independent from one another.

It became obvious that we needed to overhaul our approach to certifying aircraft if we wanted to increase safety and to help products get to market faster.

We currently have a final rule in executive review that would rewrite our small airplane certification standards – better known as Part 23.

There’s a simple idea at the heart of it: The FAA doesn’t want to tell manufacturers how to build things.

We’re not in the engineering business, and we can’t assume we have all the answers about the best way to develop an aircraft.

Our business is safety – and the new Part 23 recognizes that. Instead of requiring certain technologies or designs, it will define the performance objectives we want to achieve.

This is a fundamental shift for our agency.

We’re not waiting around to find the best way to respond to a specific innovation. We’re creating an organization that can respond nimbly and flexibly to any innovation.

Most importantly, this approach lets the dreamers and innovators do what they do best. 

We don’t want bureaucratic red tape to hamper their progress. On the contrary: we want to support it. And that’s a message I’ve been taking to every office – at every level – of the FAA.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been attending the agency’s annual award ceremonies to celebrate the work we’re doing across our lines of business. We recognize individuals who go above and beyond in times of crisis, and teams that band together to achieve extraordinary things.

While we’re obviously proud of these efforts, I often hear that this intensity and focus isn’t sustainable in the long-term for the FAA as a whole.

It’s like we’re a rubber band. In the right circumstances, we can really stretch far and do incredible things. But like a lot of other large organizations, as soon as we’re done, we snap back to the old way of doing business.

I’ve even had some people tell me they can’t wait for certain initiatives to be over so they can get back to their “real jobs.”

But this is our “real job.” This is the new normal.

I’ve heard that same sentiment from some of our traditional constituents as we’ve been redefining how we interact with industry on a number of fronts.

The fact is, aviation has never stood still. And the pace of change is only going to keep accelerating. That means we need to get comfortable with always being a little uncomfortable.

As you can imagine, this can be a tough thing to sell to an industry filled with engineering-minded people who thrive on certainty.

But as I’ve challenged our teams at the FAA to think differently, I’ve seen some promising results.

Take our Aeronautical Information Services division, which is responsible for collecting and publishing aviation data.

This is an office with roots that go all the way back to 1926 – when navigational charts had to be drawn by hand. And some of the processes they relied on weren’t much newer.

Now it would have been very easy for this group to dig in and insist that the core function of their office was to print paper charts.

But instead, they’ve done something I believe is essential for any organization that wants to evolve. They stepped back and said, “Are we asking the right questions about what we do?”

They quickly realized that their core function isn’t actually printing charts. It’s delivering high-quality, accurate aviation data.

So the Aeronautical Information Services team, working with our Office of Information and Technology, started asking employees about ways to deliver that data more efficiently.

Now, to be honest, there was some resistance at first. But as employees were encouraged to bring any and all ideas to the table, the fear of the unknown was replaced with excitement – to tear up the rule book and to innovate.

The team knew that manufacturers and developers could build new flight management tools to improve safety and performance if they had better access to information.

So we created Got Data – a campaign to help the private sector better access our existing aeronautical information, and to identify additional data resources we might be able to provide.

We got a lot of great feedback from the general aviation community and app developers when Mike Whitaker, our former Deputy Administrator, launched Got Data at Sun ‘n Fun in April.

And by the time I went to Oshkosh in July, our team had already used the recommendations to create a Data Innovation Center as a central location for all of our aeronautical data.

They also launched automated digital product downloads that make it easier for users to take advantage of the most up-to-date information.

This is only the beginning for Got Data – and for the transformation of our Aeronautical Information Services division.

I couldn’t be prouder – not only of what they’re accomplishing, but how they’re doing it. They represent a more innovative – and a more responsive – FAA.

We have an amazing pool of talent at our agency – and our achievements rely on it. Every improvement that an individual makes strengthens our foundation – and gives us more capacity to tackle our mission with ingenuity and urgency.

More than any one program or initiative, that’s what will determine the success of the FAA in the 21st century.

We’re creating a culture that doesn’t just look for answers, but makes sure we’re asking the right questions. A culture that’s willing to move forward, even when we don’t have everything figured out just yet.

We’re making progress – and people are noticing.

This job has taken me to a lot of interesting places – from air traffic control towers and aircraft manufacturing plants, to right here at the Aero Club. But it’s also taken me where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find the head of the FAA.

I spoke at the Peres Center for Peace in Israel about the importance of keeping aviation safe in conflict zones.

While talking with insurance underwriters at Lloyd’s of London about their expanded role in aviation, I saw the storied Lutine Bell. Over the decades it rang to signal claims resulting from ships lost at sea.

I even attended the Consumer Electronics Show and participated in a panel at South by Southwest as we engaged with stakeholders on how to integrate drones into our airspace.

At so many of these events, across the country and around the world, people stop to tell me how excited they are about something the FAA is working on. And there’s this note of shock they can’t quite keep out of their voices.

What I end up hearing is something like, “Who are you, and what have you done with the FAA?

It always gets a smile out of me. But it also motivates me to do more.

I want to keep striving for a day when the transformative work that we’re doing – whether it’s integrating unmanned aircraft, or delivering NextGen benefits, or overhauling certification and data sharing – isn’t considered extraordinary.

When it’s just business as usual at the FAA.

Thank you for being here today.