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Speech – "Safety Leadership Never Sleeps"

"Safety Leadership Never Sleeps"
Stephen M. Dickson, Virtual Event
October 19, 2020

Flight Safety Foundation International Air Safety Summit


Thank you, Hassan (Shahidi), for that introduction, and thank you to the Flight Safety Foundation for inviting me to address this esteemed group of aviation safety professionals today. It’s a pleasure to be here, even virtually.

I thought I’d need a few weeks to prepare a keynote for such a high profile event as this, but when I saw the theme of your conference—Safety Leadership and Global Collaboration During Crisis—I realized that I’d been readying for this speech morning, noon, and night, since I started work at the FAA in August 2019. It’s been quite the journey…

Back then, the crisis consuming most of my time in terms of global leadership was the 737 MAX investigation and proposals for how to address various issues related to its design and certification, as well as to regain the public’s trust in the system.

Starting in late January, we experienced a second crisis requiring international leadership—COVID-19.

Both crises revealed how complex and interconnected our global transportation network has become. It’s an incredibly safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly global network, but as we have seen all too clearly, especially with COVID-19, the system can come to a grinding halt in a hurry. Recovering on both accounts requires rebuilding trust with the flying public that travel by air is safe, regardless of the multitude of potential threats and no matter where in the world you are traveling.

I can tell you we’re learning a great deal about safety leadership and international collaboration as we work through these crises.

Let’s start with COVID-19. Talk about changing a tire while zooming down the Autobahn at 160 kilometers an hour (100 mph)! We had to reinvent how FAA does some of its mission practically overnight, starting in late January, while keeping our focus on all of the usual safety work the FAA does.

And if you think my use of the word “Zooming” was a play on words, you are correct. We at the FAA are all about virtual meetings these days—and it’s been a blessing that has helped us stay connected to our workforce and our stakeholders—we’re connecting about 35,000 people per day in more than 6,000 ZOOM and other virtual meeting platforms daily.

I would certainly have preferred, a few minutes from now, walking out of the conference hall and down the Champs Elysees to dinner at an outdoor café. But given our predicament, I’m happy to meet with you virtually from my office near another French-inspired icon, L’Enfant Plaza. I think you’ll agree that it’s more important than ever right now that we stay connected to share our lessons learned and concerns.

You’ve probably heard me say before that not all knowledge comes from 800 Independence Avenue—the address of the FAA Headquarters building—but I’m here to tell you that a lot of innovation and hard work does come from the FAA workforce throughout the U.S. and internationally. That drive and commitment is a key reason the FAA is known as a leader around the globe. 

Going back to the early days of the response, we were faced with a somewhat undefined challenge that needed to be addressed immediately. We had to act quickly. We had to put our brains and expertise together to collaborate, to get the job done, or rather, get thousands of jobs done, in a hurry.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began in late January….

  • We repatriated nearly 125,000 Americans on nearly 1,300 flights from 139 countries through June;
  • We distributed about $10 billion in CARES Act funding through a whole new grant program to more than 3,000 airports in a matter of days. And oh by the way, our Office of Airports employees also had to move quickly to ensure safety when the carriers parked thousands of jetliners at airports when the bottom fell out of the travel market;
  • We rolled out a wide variety of COVID-19-related exemptions to airmen—like relief for medicals and recurrent training—to ensure that our nations air transportation system kept critical goods and personnel moving by air, while continuing to ensure the safety of the system;
  • We innovated in how we do certification. One example: My aircraft production certification team developed and implemented remote technology techniques to help a business aircraft manufacturer earn the production certification for its new single-engine turboprop in July…
  • As many of you know, getting an FAA production certificate, in the good old days, required an on-site inspection and auditing of the majority of the required Quality System Elements…
  • To keep things moving, our Aircraft Certification folks came up with a hybrid version of the final audit—meaning they used virtual meeting technology to get the necessary FAA subject matter experts to the factory. This had never been done before…
  • As a result, the company had an epic day—they were able to recall more than 100 furloughed employees to begin building the turboprop…

Internationally, we’re working with EASA and other international authorities on mitigations for skill and knowledge degradation that undoubtedly occurs when pilots and aviation professionals go dormant.  In other words, when traffic dips 90% and aviation professionals cannot do their jobs, how do we avoid safety risks when they come back to work?

We are also heavily involved in the ICAO Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force, or CART.

This group is taking a leading role in developing and now updating guidance for governments and industry to safeguard the health and safety of the traveling public and aviation workers, which is the key to restoring public confidence in the aviation system, and thereby assisting in global economic recovery. Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell has been serving as the U.S. representative to the CART since it came together in May.

I’m pleased with the progress this group has made through its recommendations and Take-Off guidance for aircraft operators and airports. I’ll add that the potential effectiveness of COVID-19 testing as part of reinvigorating air travel and opening borders looks promising and is a prominent topic in the ongoing CART discussions.

Simultaneously, in the U.S., the FAA—along with the Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services—led the development of a government-wide effort that resulted in publication of the Runway to Recovery, a document that supports U.S. implementation of the CART Take-Off guidance.

Like the Take-Off guidance, this national strategy for the healthy recovery of the passenger air transportation system is a living document. Meaning we are actively engaging with our airline and airport partners to find out what works and what we need to add, adjust, or refine based on the evolution of the virus and our knowledge of it.

The upshot is that a safe, secure, efficient, and resilient air transportation system—one that addresses threats like COVID-19—is critical to reducing the public health risk, supporting the United States’ critical infrastructure needs, and assisting in recovery of our domestic and, indeed, the global economy. And what’s good for our domestic travel industry will also be good for our international travel industry.

Along the same lines, certification of the Boeing 737 MAX flight control systems in the near future will also be a positive for the travel industry and the public’s confidence. While I am not going to sign off on the un-grounding of the MAX until I’m satisfied we have addressed all known safety issues—I will tell you that we are making excellent progress.

As most of you know, several weeks ago, I went out to Seattle and flew the MAX, fulfilling a promise that I made when I became FAA Administrator in August 2019. At the time, I said I would not allow the aircraft to fly again until I was confident enough to put my own family on it, and that is still the case. It was important to me, as a pilot with many thousands of hours at the controls of complex jet aircraft—to experience the training and aircraft handling firsthand.

I completed that training and a flight the last week of September, and I can now say with conviction that I have full confidence that the new training will prepare MAX pilots to control and operate the aircraft under any failure scenario.

I took the computer-based training as recommended by the Joint Operations Evaluation Board, or JOEB, and followed that up with time in the 737 MAX simulator.

During this training, I reviewed 10 conditions, both normal operating modes and non-normal checklist procedures, and repeated those 10 in the actual aircraft. These conditions related not just to the MCAS, but to all changes made to the flight control laws.

The FAA and other regulatory authorities have worked tirelessly with Boeing for nearly two years. The FAA takes seriously the recommendations received from several independent expert panels, investigative agencies, and authorities globally.

Based on what we’ve learned, we have launched important initiatives focused on advancing overall aviation safety by improving our organization, processes, and culture. We’re also continuing to work collaboratively with our fellow international aviation safety regulators. Our process is not constrained by a set schedule.

We followed every lead as we undertook an unblinking examination of this airplane and our own certification processes. We worked collaboratively with our global partners from Ethiopia, Indonesia, the National Transportation Safety Board, and many other boards of inquiry, to identify and resolve all known safety issues.

The FAA is committed to ensuring that the lessons learned from the losses of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 will result in an even greater level of safety globally. The families and friends of those onboard expect—and deserve—no less. A day doesn’t go by that I and the entire team working this project don’t think about them and feel your loss. When I met with the families, I  pledged that we would work our hardest to honor their loved ones by improving the margins of safety for aviation around the world. We are continuing to do so every day.

If there is anything that has become apparent in the 19 months since Ethiopian 302, it is that passengers—and their families and friends—expect the same level of safety, no matter where in the world they are flying. As an international community of aviators, we all have a shared responsibility in making that happen. If the public does not feel the system is safe, they will not fly.

Throughout this process, the FAA has taken a holistic, comprehensive approach that includes examination of the aircraft systems. We are collaborating extensively with various investigative authorities, international agencies, civil aviation authorities, and other external agency experts. Our certification process has included extensive review of the system that played a key role in both crashes—the MCAS. This led to a number of design modifications on the airplane that have been validated in both full-motion simulators and in flight tests.

What’s left to do? We will review public comments on the Flight Standardization Board’s preliminary report on proposed pilot training for the MAX, as well as consider public comments to the proposed Airworthiness Directive that mandates corrective actions needed to unground the aircraft for U.S. operators.

My subject matter experts will review Boeing’s final design documentation to make sure it complies with all regulations, and the multi-agency Technical Advisory Board will do the same.

Once the aircraft is ungrounded, the FAA will retain its authority to issue airworthiness and export certificates for all new MAX aircraft built since the grounding, and we will also review and approve training programs for all Part 121 operators flying the MAX.

I know it sounds like a lot, and it is, but as I said earlier, we are making excellent progress toward a safe return to service.

Looking beyond the next few months, we are continuing to explore a number of broader systemic improvements in aviation safety, like moving to a more holistic versus transactional approach to aircraft certification and encouraging all companies in the aerospace sector to embrace a Just Culture mindset and Safety Management Systems.

We have also been working with the international aviation community on foundational safety capabilities, such as pilot training, that will enable us to continue to raise the bar on aviation safety around the globe. With the FAA’s encouragement, ICAO has launched a new Personnel Training and Licensing Panel, which will include a focus on flight path management and automation dependency. We expect the Panel’s first meeting to take place in the coming months.

Focusing more on pilots, in particular, we have to do a better job of integrating human factors into the end-to-end design, training, and operations processes. In other words, the system design must support the pilot in training to do his or her job, and then in doing that job.

Regarding automation, we need to focus on more than reducing pilot errors. We must also analyze how pilots contribute to safety and how humans can best work with automated systems. You cannot engineer the human out of the process. As we’ve seen too painfully in the past, automation can’t do it all, so we’re continuing our research in this area.

Let’s face it, the legacy airliner, with crew of two, is going to be around for a long, long time, so a good deal of our research is directed toward boosting safety in terms of manual and cognitive flight skills. We were preparing to start a simulation study with airline crews earlier this year to study manual and cognitive skills on the airline flight deck, but we had to postpone because of COVID-19. What we want to do in part is to determine what maneuvers we should expect pilots to be able to perform competently by hand.

Recently, the FAA has updated its air carrier training requirements to include the more manual flying skills, such as slow flight and unreliable airspeed training with a specific focus on flying the aircraft solely with reference to pitch and power.

We also published a Safety Alert, SAFO 17007, that provides guidance for air carriers to develop automation policies that encourage pilots to maintain proficiency in manual flying. Hopefully, you’ve heard of it!

We’re also working on a new Advisory Circular that will include guidance on manual flight operations, as well as on managing automated systems, pilot monitoring, and energy management. This is part of a broader look at what it takes for pilots to most safely, efficiently, and effectively control the path of the aircraft from gate-to-gate, in other words Flight Path Management. We expect to publish that AC by the end of 2021.

None of this is to say that the aviation system we have right now is not safe and efficient. We all know that it is efficient, and it is incredibly safe. In fact, the International Air Transport Association calculates that, on average, a passenger could take a flight every day for 16,581 years before experiencing a fatal accident in which all onboard perish.

But those odds are of no comfort to the families and friends who have lost a loved one in an aviation accident. We have to earn the public’s trust everyday; we must continually improve the margins of safety for the entire travel experience. That means continuously evolving, and constantly evaluating, the safety bar and raising it. To do it right, we must also be leaders for this movement around the world. It is a global system!

That’s safety leadership. Taking responsibility for the air transportation system as it stands; improving it as best we can; leaning forward to identify the safety challenges ahead; and collaborating far and wide to make sure we deploy the best, most universal, and practical solutions to boost aviation safety and public confidence in the system.

Thank you for listening.

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