A Conversation with FAA Administrator Steve Dickson on Global Aviation Safety and Innovation

Administrator Stephen M Dickson (August 12, 2019 - present)

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for that introduction, Bailey (Edwards). It’s good to be here in Dubai at the premier aviation and air industry event in the Middle East. Like the U.S., the UAE has a safety-focused, vibrant and competitive aviation industry, with innovative new entrants like commercial space, unmanned aircraft and flying taxis.

The aviation industry is an economic driver here, accounting for 1.4 million jobs and U.S. $130 billion to the regional Gross Domestic Product of the Middle East. At lot of that activity flows through Dubai International airport—the largest international airport in the world—with 90 million passengers annually.

Bailey mentioned my position as Senior VP for Flight Ops at Delta. I learned many things during 12 years in that position, but the main thing the job made me understand was that regardless of change, new entrants, increasing complexity or competition—safety always has to remain the focus and bedrock of our industry.

I’m sure we agree that safety is a journey, not a destination. We know that we must build on what we’ve learned from the hard lessons along the way, and we must never allow ourselves to become complacent.

The 737 MAX remains a key focus for the FAA and our partners throughout the world, including here in the UAE where FlyDubai has 14 aircraft in its fleet, and firm orders for 225 more.

On behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration, I would like to, once again, extend our deepest sympathy to the families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air accidents. Many nations, including the United States, had citizens on those flights. Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell and I have been meeting with family members and friends of those onboard. Each time we meet, we see their pain, their loss, and it reaffirms the seriousness with which we must approach safety every single day. We want our citizens and our own families to have confidence in the aviation system when they travel. That is why we, as regulators and operators, work so hard in our jobs every day. 

I am absolutely committed to honoring the memory of those who lost their lives, by working tirelessly—each and every day of my tenure—to ensure the highest possible margin of safety in the global aviation system. Safety is a journey we undertake each and every day with humility and a focus on continuous improvement.

The FAA welcomes scrutiny and feedback on how we can improve our processes. Several independent reviews have been undertaken of the 737 MAX and the FAA’s certification and delegation processes. The first to be completed was one we commissioned–asking nine other authorities—including the UAE—to join us in the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) to assess the Boeing 737 MAX flight control system certification. Never before have 10 authorities come together to conduct a review of this sort. And I want to emphasize that we invited this probing review by our peer regulators. That is the FAA at its best. We welcome the input and critique from the various other reviews and audits as well.

Willingness to accept input and critique is a sign of humility and transparency. It is also a strength. I have seen this firsthand as I’ve met our regulatory counterparts around the world. They appreciate and value US leadership. They understand that by working together, we will all be better and raise the bar on global aviation safety.

Going forward beyond the MAX, some key themes are emerging regarding aircraft certification processes not only in the US, but around the world. I am committed to addressing each of these issues.  They include:

  • Moving toward a more holistic versus transactional, item-by-item approach to aircraft certification;
  • Integrating human factors considerations more effectively throughout the design process, as aircraft become more automated and systems more complex; and
  • Ensuring coordinated and flexible information flow during the oversight process.

These are among the many issues that we must address to prevent the next accident from happening. We must look at the overall aviation system and how all the pieces interact.

It’s much more than aircraft and pilots when we talk about the overall aviation system. For one, the airspace through which we fly must be clear of conflicts and there is the ever present threat of cyberattacks to infrastructure and the aircraft itself.

The most tragic and vivid demonstration of an airspace threat was the horrific shoot down of Malaysia Air Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine in July 2014. It was a watershed moment for aviation safety and security, underscoring the necessity of assessing the risk that conflict zones pose to civil aviation.

Since that time, FAA has redoubled its efforts to work with partners inside and outside the U.S. Government to identify and analyze emergent threats. We issue, when necessary flight advisories or prohibitions for airspace affected by specific aviation threats. 

The FAA currently has a prohibition preventing U.S. carriers from operating in the Damascus Flight Information Region due to the conflict in Syria.

While there considerations internationally for resuming services in the Damascus FIR and to the Damascus International Airport, the FAA considers this airspace unsafe for civil aviation due to ongoing military operations, threats from extremists, heavy jamming of Global Positioning System navigation signals, and uncoordinated surface-to-air missile launches.

I said earlier, safety is a journey, not a destination, and we must be constantly vigilant of the entire system.

By the same token, if and when incidents and accidents do happen—however infrequently—we can’t prematurely point the finger of blame against the pilots, the airplane, the operator, or any other single factor. Too often—even in the recent past—rushing to judgment has resulted in some segments of the industry missing out on opportunities to improve our margin of safety. 

We have to look at the whole system and how all the parts interact. That will require truly integrated data, enterprise-wide, and constant learning from each other – regulator and those we regulate. That’s the only way the system is going to get better.

I’ll end by saying that it’s a pleasure to be here and I look forward to learning a great deal about Dubai and the UAE here at the show. Thank you everyone for coming and I hope you have a great show. Now Bailey will begin the question and answer portion of the forum.