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Speech – "Aero Club, "Temporary Stewards”"

"Aero Club, "Temporary Stewards”"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
November 14, 2017

Aero Club


When I first entered FAA headquarters as Deputy Administrator in 2010, I couldn’t have predicted the exhilarating journey I was about to take. And as my years with the agency near a conclusion, it’s fitting that I’m back here today with all of you.

Much has changed in our industry in the last seven years. And that change has been driven by the people in this room, and so many more, who were willing to work with the FAA to make big things happen.

We took these great strides during a time when the stakes were high. The airlines were coming off a decade of staggering losses, and we were embarking on an ambitious overhaul of America’s air traffic system – all while our nation was still feeling the pain of a recession.

Coming into this job, it was apparent to me that we needed more consensus and clarity around the goals we were pursuing as an industry. We had the expertise and the ability to do anything we wanted. We just couldn’t do everything all at once.

We also couldn’t just think about making technological changes – although there were many in the works. We also needed to think about changing the culture inside the FAA. 

Things clearly had to move faster. And the only way forward was to foster a more constructive relationship with the aviation community.

I never expected to have such a long term as Administrator. But I knew my tenure would be pretty short if we couldn’t achieve better ties with industry.

Fortunately, you were more than willing to work with us on finding better ways to do business.

And look at where we are now. Most of what we envisioned nearly a decade ago is here –  and more is on the way.

The result is the safest, largest, most complex, and most efficient air transportation system the world has ever known.

Sometimes we take this for granted. But it’s big news. And it’s something we accomplished together.

Across the board, we are now unleashing a host of technologies that will profoundly change what aviation looks like for decades to come.

Satellite technology has modernized the backbone of our nation’s air traffic system.

For three years now, GPS-based procedures have outnumbered the old ground-based navigation routes, and more users are taking advantage of them every day.

We’ll take the next big step in 2020, when all aircraft in the U.S. use ADS-B to broadcast their precise location in real-time to air traffic controllers.

We’re also taking safety to the next level by incorporating risk management into our compliance work. As the aviation community shares more data with us than ever before, we’re focusing our oversight resources where they’re needed most.

This is part of a larger shift in how we interact with the industry as a whole.

We’ve brought together the best minds in government, academia, aviation, technology, and law enforcement to help us address our most pressing challenges.

Whether it’s through our Drone Advisory Committee or the NextGen Advisory Committee, close collaboration has helped us deliver the right technologies, at the right time, to meet industry needs.

This has consistently yielded better results than if the FAA had tried to go it alone. And the aviation community today is stronger, better, and safer as a result.

Collaboration will only become more important in a future where constant change is the new normal.

We stand on the cusp of the next great age in aviation – when the skies will be home to multitudes of new users, flying in ways we can only imagine.

We can debate when drone taxis will emerge and how many people they’ll carry. But there’s no debate they’re on the horizon. Just last week, Uber announced it was partnering with NASA to develop traffic systems for flying cars.

Meanwhile, the emerging commercial space industry could easily evolve into a system where travelers take rocket ships to Asia, Europe, or the Middle East in a matter of minutes.

These changes are coming, and they’re coming fast. The industry has a new “need for speed.”

And as a regulator, the FAA can’t afford to move at the traditional pace of government. We’ll get left behind at the launch pad, wondering what just happened.

That’s why I’ve focused so much of my time as Administrator on creating room for a new culture to take root within the FAA.

As an agency, we traditionally spent a lot of time studying things – thinking through all the angles before taking even a single step. We also viewed things in terms of black and white. It’s either right, or it’s wrong.

We no longer have time for these luxuries.

We must all become comfortable working in the gray. We don’t need to know all the answers before we make a move.

I’ve delivered this message to my colleagues around the nation. And they’ve heard it, loud and clear.

One of my favorite moments happened a few years ago, when we first began to get serious about changing the way we certify new general aviation aircraft.

Dorenda Baker, the manager of the project, started off her presentation by looking me straight in the eye and saying, “All right, so you said it was okay to break some china…”

When she was done walking me through a proposal that very much tore up the old rule book, I asked her team, “Do you really want to do this?”

And they all agreed: “Not only do we want to – we have to.”

Whether it’s responding to a crisis or shepherding in a new form of aviation, my colleagues have risen to the challenge at every turn.

They’re questioning the way we’ve always done things. They’re thinking outside the box. They’re finding flexible solutions that can work today – and adapt to the demands of an ever-changing future.

As an agency, we’re embracing a proactive attitude that prizes being the innovator – and not the obstacle. We know we have to take thoughtful and calculated risks. Some things are going to work. Others won’t. And that’s okay – as long as we keep making progress.

Safety is always going to be the FAA’s top priority. But we also know that doesn’t mean we have a monopoly on the best way to achieve it. That’s why we’re looking to our traditional partners – as well as new ones – to help us figure it all out.

Our aviation family is only going to keep expanding. Our table has to grow with it. We need to hear from a broad range of voices if we’re going to get things right.

A small business owner might look at a drone and see the opportunity for a profitable new venture. An airport manager looks at the very same device and wants to keep it out of his airspace. Meanwhile, the airline CEO wants to make sure the drone doesn’t cause any disruptions at the company’s biggest hub. And the GA pilot just wants to fly with minimal hassle.

Guess what? Every one of those viewpoints is important. And all stakeholders deserve to have their interests considered.

Now like any family, we’re going to have our disagreements. And it’s very easy to dig in when somebody challenges the status quo.

We’re in the midst of an important conversation right now, about the future of our air traffic control system. And there are a lot of opinions about the best way to position our nation’s aviation infrastructure to meet the demands of the future.

People are entitled to their own opinions. But they’re not entitled to their own facts.

We need to have a transparent discussion that’s based on where we are today – not a decade ago.

It also needs to go beyond defending whatever your personal position might be. We need to be focused on the future.

Structure alone can’t solve the core funding challenges facing air traffic control. It’s time to have an honest conversation about what the American public expects us to do, and how best to pay for it.

We can’t keep talking past each other. We need to talk with each other.

The sky above our heads is one of this nation’s most valuable assets. We must protect it. We must help it thrive.

Aviation is where it is today because we’re standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us – the scientists, engineers, and yes, the dreamers, who were brave enough to tackle that next great challenge.

Their names are on airports and street signs. Their achievements inspire us to this day.

They’re giants because they were good stewards. They saw the bigger picture. And they dedicated their lives to building an aviation system that could stand the test of time.

As my time as FAA Administrator comes to a close, I’ve been thinking more and more about the transitional nature of this job.

Every day, I walk through a hallway outside my office that’s lined with the portraits of those who sat in the chair I now occupy. They all faced challenges, and they all left their own marks on the agency.

In a few months, I’ll join my predecessors on the wall, and a new person will take that chair.

My advice to him or her? Embrace change. Be a good listener. And make the tough decisions. The pace out there is full throttle, and the aviation community needs someone at the FAA who is going to lead.

I’ll extend the same advice to each of you.

We’re all proud to be a part of our nation’s great aviation system. But it stands still for no one. We are all temporary stewards.

It started with Orville and Wilbur Wright. And the torch has been passed through the generations.

Now, we are lucky enough to hold it. And it’s our responsibility to do something that’s worthy of that legacy.

We’ve got tough questions to answer. But I’m confident we’re prepared to face them head on.

And someday soon, it will be our turn to pass that torch on to the next generation. It will be up to them to decide whether we were giants.

But I can see just far enough to be optimistic. The possibilities are vast, and the horizon has never seemed closer.

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