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Speech – "Air Transportation Information Exchange"

"Air Transportation Information Exchange"
Michael Huerta, Silver Spring, MD
September 20, 2016

Air Transportation Information Exchange Conference

Thank you, Abby. I’m so happy to be here. It’s good to see so many colleagues from the FAA, industry, and our international partners all together in one room.

As you can probably imagine, I do a lot of speaking as FAA Administrator, to a wide variety of groups. I’m particularly happy to be here at the Air Transportation Information Exchange Conference.  And that’s because I believe that the free and open exchange of information is one of the most important things that we can do as an aviation and aerospace industry if we want to improve aviation safety.

Today, no matter where you look, we as a society are awash in a sea of data. Whether it’s from a smart phone app or a triple-redundant fly-by-wire flight control system on a modern jetliner, almost every move we make generates a stream of ones and zeroes.

It’s been said that we’re living in the age of “Big Data,” but it wasn’t always like that.

In the early 1950s, the aviation industry was baffled by a string of crashes involving the DeHavilland Comet, the world’s first production jetliner. David Warren, an Australian researcher, believed investigators would be better able to determine the probable cause of crashes if the pilots’ voices could be captured, along with a few key instrument readings.

Warren developed the first “black box” for commercial airliners – which he called a Flight Memory Unit – in 1957. And even back then, the black box wasn’t black; it was red. Go figure.

During the first couple of decades, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders remained fairly primitive due to limitations with the technology at the time.

Even into the 1980s, they recorded only a handful of parameters that were etched into aluminum foil or recorded on a 30-minute loop of magnetic tape.

This data was extremely helpful for accident investigations, considering that before that, there was nothing.    

Today, a flight data recorder on a modern jet can record hours of data including several hundred parameters on solid-state memory.

And although accidents involving commercial aircraft are exceedingly rare, flight recorders are still one of the most valuable safety tools we have to ensure safety in aviation.

In fact, in many ways, we’ve entered a new frontier when it comes to aviation data. Because we have so much information, we no longer have to wait for an incident to occur before we identify a safety problem.

For example, today we can use data from a recorder on a jet engine to potentially predict an imminent failure that first manifests itself as something as innocuous as a high oil temperature reading.

In recent years, aviation safety has evolved from a discipline dominated by aerospace engineers to one in which Information Technology professionals are helping us spot the problems that might have been in the system all along.

So we have to find ways to share information, and to share data, more freely and also find new ways to figure out what the data can tell us.  For instance, safety data could lead to smarter designs of aircraft or better pilot training.

Let me share an example that I think speaks volumes about what we can accomplish when we have an open exchange of data.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a conversation that began about how we can drive down the commercial fatal accident risk rate. 

In that time period, we experienced a series of crashes that raised questions in the public and in Congress that basically boiled down to this: Was aviation safe? Or was it even possible to make it safe? 

A White House Commission recommended that we set a goal to reduce the fatal accident rate by 80 percent in 10 years. Then a Congressional Commission recommended that the government and the aviation industry, together, develop a joint safety agenda to meet this goal. 

So the FAA and industry made this commitment. We set up the Commercial Aviation Safety Team.  We agreed that we would share data between the industry and government, we would analyze that data together, and we would develop an agenda to mitigate risk.

Ten years later, in 2008, we achieved our goal. We had reduced the commercial fatality risk not just by 80 percent, but by 84 percent in that 10-year period.

This is held up, not just in aviation, but across the entire transportation spectrum as being one of the most profound successes we’ve ever had. Aviation is far safer than it’s ever been. And lessons are being applied to other modes of transportation. 

Building on this progress, we then shifted from a forensic approach to managing safety to a more prognostic approach. This shift recognized that we could rely on safety data from across the industry, not just to solve the last accident, but to prevent an accident from happening in the first place. 

This proactive, data-driven approach is now at the center of all of the FAA’s safety efforts. 

Whether we’re working to mitigate safety risk, maximize air traffic efficiency, or any other goal in aviation, one thing is clear – information sharing, broadly across the industry, between industry and governments, between governments throughout the world,is the key to our success.

The more we can find ways of getting accurate, timely, secure data in the hands of the people who need it, the better off we will all be in the aviation industry. 

We’re really only scratching the surface today. There is a lot of data out there and it’s going to require creativity to find new ways to harness the full extent of what that data is telling us.

This is true in every segment of society, not just the aviation industry. In fact, President Obama issued a White House directive calling for an Open Data Policy in May of 2013.

The idea is that by making information resources easy to find, making them more accessible, and making them more usable, we can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation and scientific discovery that can improve the lives of all Americans and spur job creation here in the United States.

We want to get data into the hands of those that can make great use of it. It’s especially important when you consider that in our industry, aviation, things are moving at the speed of innovation. We can’t be moving at the speed of government. 

So at the FAA, we’re doing our part to support the President’s Open Data Policy.

Earlier this year, we started the “Got Data?” initiative.  It’s an effort to engage with our external stakeholders to better understand the kind of data they find useful and how we can get it to them in a quick and efficient manner. 

Avionics manufacturers turn the navigational charts and instrument approaches the FAA produces into a wide variety of electronic products. These feed into the aircraft’s flight management systems, iPads, and other mobile devices.

The biggest advantage of these new products is that they enable pilots to have greater situational awareness about where they are, and what lies ahead, than ever before. And it all fits in the space of a silicon chip.

Now imagine what could be possible if we opened up more of our data to more partners. That’s the idea behind Got Data.

We want to find better ways to help the private sector access aeronautical data currently offered by the FAA. We also want to identify additional data resources that we could potentially provide.

Our goal is to help industry be in a position to create innovative products and technologies that can improve safety and efficiency in the aviation industry.

We’ve created a Data Innovation Center that serves as a new central location for all of the FAA’s aeronautical information.

We also launched automated digital product downloads that will make it easier for users to ensure they’re using the most up-to-date data.

We’re seeing that app developers can use the underlying data to build charts. They can change the color of airports based on whether they have part-time or full-time control tower service. They’re developing ways to display Temporary Flight Restrictions visually for pilots.

We’ve made this progress in only two and a half months, and we’re just getting started.

We’re going to continue working closely with aircraft owners, application developers, and manufacturers to provide new and better data that will improve the products that pilots use in the cockpit for the safety and efficiency of our airspace.

I want to see these kinds of benefits across the globe as well. After all, the need for accurate, timely air traffic information doesn’t stop at our FIR boundary. Passengers expect one level of safety, whether they’re flying at home or abroad. 

Ensuring that level of safety requires the sharing of data between nations. And while we want global aviation to be safer, we also want it to be more efficient and greener. 

Over the past 10 years, the FAA and EUROCONTROL have worked together to improve the global exchange of several types of air transportation information.

Until recently, our information was still based on the ability for the human to read and verbalize the concept.  This led to many different formats and lots of time and money spent adapting to one another’s rules, definitions and formats.

In an environment in which automation is now supporting our decisions, we have come together to develop standard models for the exchange of flight, weather and aeronautical information.

To support aeronautical information exchange, the FAA implemented a Digital Notices to Airmen system in 2013.

Under the digital system, authorized persons can submit NOTAMS directly into the system. Airspace users can more easily filter and sort the NOTAMs, which enables better flight planning and greater situational awareness for users of the system.  With the legacy system, it took about 15 minutes to originate a NOTAM. By going digital, it takes about five seconds. Clearly, that is a huge improvement in getting timely information to users.  

We’re using similar tools to digitize flight planning and the exchange of weather information.

I want to thank everyone here for the great job that’s been done in making this possible. 

This work now continues into the newly-formed ICAO Information Management Panel, where we are supporting the development of overall global information management standards and practices that impact all of the information domains.

All of these efforts have laid the groundwork for a more global structure for information access. We’ll be able to exchange greater amounts of relevant information in a timelier and less costly way. As we do these things, we’ll make international aviation more seamless.  We’ll make it more efficient.  We’re also going to make it safer, and we never want to lose sight of that.

The FAA and EUROCONTROL have hosted separate demonstrations showing that a global structure can work very well. These demonstrations have used simulated and live flight data to support things like flight plan submission, boundary coordination, dangerous goods transport, and fleet prioritization. 

Through these demonstrations and a lot of other work, the FAA and EUROCONTROL have demonstrated global leadership on this issue, which is helping to support the Global Air Navigation Service Plan and helping to support individual participants in the system. 

We’re big supporters of ICAO’s Information Management Panel, which is doing the foundational work to make these international exchange models work for all nations. We want to exchange timely, secure, and relevant information to users in a way that is flexible, adaptable and scalable.

I’ve mentioned a few ways that data is changing aviation, but really, it would be difficult to make a comprehensive list.

The FAA realizes that the real key to making real progress in harnessing the power of data lies in forming collaborative relationships with those who understand it best.

The good news is that we are headed in the right direction.

As we move further into this age of Big Data, the world aviation community needs to rise to the challenge of using this information in the best possible way. In doing so, something extremely important happens. We make a system that is already the gold standard for safety and transportation, and we make it even safer. 

It’s all in the data. How we use it. How we leverage it. How we share it and how we collaborate as organizations.

Thank you for participating in this conference, and I hope you have a productive exchange of information and ideas. Best of luck to you.