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Speech – "Amazing is What You Do"

"Amazing is What You Do"
Daniel K. Elwell, Washington, DC
May 21, 2018

NATCA Annual Legislative Conference


Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Paul. I’m happy to be here. I want to thank you and Trish for your leadership … and for being such great partners.

I also want to thank our controllers for the job you do every day. You safely handle about 45 thousand IFR flights a day … over 31 million miles of domestic and international airspace.

To the layperson, this is nothing short of amazing.

But it’s what you do, every single day.

When it comes to safety and efficiency, you have set an incredibly high bar.

I’ll give you a good example.

Last month, controller Tim Martin at Daytona Beach Tower came through for a 20-year old student pilot who was in trouble.

The pilot was flying solo when engine oil sprayed all over his windscreen. He couldn’t see anything forward or sideways.

Tim calmed him down, and got him towards the Daytona Beach Airport. Once the aircraft was close to the runway, our tower controllers gave vertical guidance to the radar controller to relay to the aircraft. 

Tim and his colleagues worked together to guide this pilot all the way to touchdown, and then let him know how much runway he had left.

When the student landed, he said we had saved his life.

Saves like these remind us that we must always be vigilant. Whether you’re in the cockpit, the tower cab or the center–the calmest, most benign day can turn on a dime into a life and death situation.

This became all too clear after Captain Shultz’ engine failed on Southwest Flight 1380. Tragically, this event took a life.

But, if not for the calm professionalism and coordination of the flight crew and air traffic controllers, it could have been much worse.

We had gone 9 years and 3 months without a commercial passenger fatality. But that tragedy reminds us that ensuring safety is a never-ending task.

The FAA and NATCA are doing everything possible to drive down safety risk. We have to continue to collect and share safety data … identify and target the highest risk areas … and work with our stakeholders to address the problems.

Over the past 10 years, FAA controllers have submitted more than 147,000 ATSAP reports. From these reports, we have put in place 181 corrective actions.

That’s 181 more ways to extend the safety margin so that accidents don’t happen!

Let me give you some examples. 

A controller at Albany Tower reported that trees were obstructing the view of Runway 28.

That’s a potential trigger for runway incursions.

ATSAP’s Event Review Committee shared the report and coordinated a full Obstruction Evaluation. And following that, we put out a contract to remove or trim the trees from public and private property.

Employees at Kansas City Center also submitted ATSAP reports indicating problems with some frequencies for Kirksville, Missouri.

There were “scratchy” readbacks, numerous repeats, and missed calls. The frequencies had become useless on main and standby.

This is a bad thing all the way around. It could lead to miscommunication between controllers and pilots.

This could result in increased workload, distractions, and the potential for airspace and separation issues.

Technical Operations looked for causes and solutions, and last year they implemented a series of mitigations to solve the problem.

It was the ATSAP reports that really elevated the issues, so they could get the attention they needed.

None of that happens without you leaning forward. ATSAP turns up things that otherwise would have gone unattended to. We’re as safe as we are because we make sure we get things right, and when they’re not, we fix them. Together.

As I said, this is what we do.

And it’s the same approach we need to take as drones come into the field.

This industry is rapidly evolving, and the FAA must stay a step ahead.  

Our goal is to ensure safety while enabling innovation.

We could be looking at 3.5 million drones by 2021. As part of this effort, we have to ensure the safety of other aircraft and people and property on the ground, while safeguarding the needs of traditional airspace users.  

Earlier this month, Secretary Elaine Chao announced the ten selectees that will take part in the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program.

These sites are going to change how we look at aviation. We’re well familiar with border patrol, package delivery, and emergency response. We’re just used to having someone sitting up front to do it.

It’s a new day.

Over the next two and half years, the selectees will collect drone data on night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, and on detect-and-avoid technology.

For specific drone flights, they will be able get expedited approval for airspace authorizations. In turn, they will give us the data that will inform our regulations on drones.

Last month, the FAA announced a national beta test of a new automation tool called LAANC.

We’re at the mercy of acronyms. LAANC is the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability.

LAANC is designed specifically to expedite requests by drone users to operate in controlled airspace near airports.

At early prototype locations, LAANC has cut the average approval time from three months to less than one minute.

As part of the beta test, over the next six months, the agency will be rolling out LAANC to nearly 300 air traffic facilities and about 500 airports.

We look forward to seeing the results.

Through the UAS Pilot, LAANC and the other efforts we’re making, the U.S. will continue to lead the world in safe drone integration.    

None of this happens without you, and we’re going to hire more than 5,000 controllers in the next five years, to make sure we’re in a place to succeed.

Again this year, our hiring has been going very well. As of last week, we were at 82 percent of our hiring goal of 1701. This will be the third year in a row we have exceeded our goal.

Our largest staffing challenge is at New York TRACON. As you know, N90 is one of the world’s busiest and most complex RADAR facilities.

Over the past year, we’ve posted two announcements for experienced applicants to be assigned to N90. The ATO is providing the selected applicants with more intense simulator training that comes close to matching the real traffic there.   

We have also taken steps to enhance Academy training. It’s called Ten Eleven Twelve Radar Assessment, or TETRA. In the future, we will employ this training for new hires at N90 and other large complex RADAR facilities.

Thanks to NATCA’s advocacy, there was a change in the law allowing us to post an announcement to hire applicants with no experience within a local commuting area.

We plan to post this announcement on June 19th, preceding an all-sources announcement scheduled for June 27th.

And whether it’s hiring, or any other important investment we make at the agency, stable funding is an important issue.

We must have a funding stream that’s sustainable and matches what we’re trying to accomplish.

We were pleased that the House passed a five-year FAA reauthorization bill last month. But it certainly didn’t play out the way we had hoped.

While we understand the political dynamics that prompted Chairman Shuster to remove the air traffic control reform title from the bill, we all agree that the status quo has not provided a stable, predictable funding stream to operate and modernize the NAS.  

The stop-and-go funding has delayed needed system improvements. It makes planning for modernization projects difficult and more expensive.

And the 2013 sequestration forced us to suspend controller hiring and shutter the Academy for a year.

The pending bills are far from perfect, but I’m committed to ensuring that you get the resources you need to continue delivering the level of service that the American people expect.

Under the leadership of Chairman Shuster and Chairman Thune, I’m confident that a long-term bill will be enacted this year.  

As controllers, your professionalism and teamwork are major reasons for aviation’s historic safety record.

I mentioned Flight 1380 earlier. When the pilot told Corey Davids, controller at New York center, they had to make an emergency landing, Cory and nine other controllers cleared the airspace so the plane could land in Philadelphia, as soon as possible.

Otherwise, the tragedy could have been much, much worse.

People who read or watched this story thought it was amazing.

But, I think Cory put it best when he said, “We have thousands of controllers around the country that go in everyday, do their job, leave, and no one hears anything about anything.”

Cory’s right. This is simply what you do. This is why FAA remains the gold standard around the world.

I look forward to working with you to keep it that way.

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