Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Commencement - Daytona Beach, FL

Administrator Michael Whitaker (October 2023 - Present)

Good afternoon, everyone, distinguished faculty, honored guests and soon to be graduates. It's a privilege to be with you today. As someone who has spent almost their entire career in aviation, Embry Riddle has always been in a class of its own through its excellence and passion for aviation.  

So, I'm truly honored to have the opportunity to address you today. First and foremost, congratulations to the new graduates. This is a day you've all been waiting for. But I also want to say especially congratulations to the parents, stepparents, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the spouses, the kids, and the siblings. You have all helped successfully launched this next generation of aviators and other professionals, so, well done.  

It's been a long time since I sat in the seat where you are today, it's been 40 years exactly. 40 years ago, aviation was in a much different place than it is today and faced many daunting challenges.  

The airline industry had recently been deregulated, and then we faced decades of turmoil, bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions, and employee layoffs. And, tragically, it was a time when major airline accidents were practically an annual event.  

Today, the world of aviation is much safer and more stable. Flying has become the safest mode of transportation by a large margin. Thankfully, major commercial airline accidents have become quite rare. We achieved that by industry, government, and academia - institutions like Embry Riddle - working together to develop safety systems that are now used around the world and in other industries.  

40 years from now, the world of aviation will look quite different. Most deliveries to your home will be done by drone. When you need to travel to the airport, you'll be able to hail a taxi - an air taxi, remotely piloted - that will take you directly to your terminal. Most long-haul travel will be done at supersonic speeds, reducing travel times in half, and more by rocket propulsion - which can take you halfway around the world in a mere two hours (a trip that today takes 13 hours). None of this is science fiction. All of these technologies are in the pipeline, and many of you will be spending your careers making these new technologies a reality.  

All this is to say to you, graduates, you are in for a very interesting problem. As I said, it's been 40 years since I was at your place. It wasn't here...it was University of Louisville. I can tell you; it is a moment that you are unlikely to forget, I remember it like it was yesterday.  

Oddly, one of the things I remember most was wondering why we would call this event commencement. It was the end of my university age, not the commencement. I know that's not a very profound thought, but that's what I was thinking about during my ceremony. Now with the wisdom of hindsight, I can see why they use the term, you're at the very beginning of what will likely be a very long and interesting career. But I still don't care for the term commencement. Your journey started long before today.  

I prefer the language that many of you learn in everyday language education. For those of you who are uninitiated in aviation, we have our very own language. In fact, we have an alphabet called the NATO alphabet. You've heard of it, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. We even have our own words, like METAR....and Mayday. We're taught to communicate in clear and unambiguous ways with words like affirmative, unable, standby. Yeah, we learned the importance of clear communication.  

So, instead of commencement, let's use the language of aviation. Let's say you are lined up on a runway, waiting to be cleared for takeoff as your family waves you on. That's the more powerful work where you can take off to your next destination.  

For some of you, you may know exactly where that destination is, maybe you've known since you were a child. You have a career plan, your flight plan, clearly in mind now and you just need to execute the plan of flight to fly the plane.  

I was not that. When I sat in your seat, I had no idea where it was headed. Some of you may find yourself in that situation. Not quite sure what you want to be when you grow up and it's fine. You don't need to necessarily know the final destination, as long as you know the next stop along the way.  

My journey in aviation took me on a diversion through law school, and finally landed me – thankfully – in the law department of an airline. I knew then and there that I found my place. I immediately loved working in aviation and have ever since.  

So, as you wait for your takeoff clearance, know that your career maybe takes you in some unexpected directions, and likely will involve some serious turbulence. And when that happens, it's useful to recall what every new pilot was taught when things get challenging on the flight deck; just focus on three things: aviate, navigate, communicate. These are just the things you do when you fly an airplane. This should always be your priority.   

Aviate first, navigate, then communicate. As you go through challenges in your career and your life, these can be useful principles to keep you focused and in the right direction - even when you're unsure of your final place.  

The first priority is always to fly the airplane before you do anything else. Is your airspeed average? Are your wings level? Are you clear of terrain? Many pilots have lost control of their aircraft while looking at a chart or dialing in the frequency when they should be flying the aircraft. Focus on flying right. Only when your aircraft is well trimmed and stable, should you focus on navigation. Where do you want to go? And then, once you've figured that out, it's time to communicate clearly. 

At the FAA, we organize our work around these three priorities: aviate, navigate, and communicate. For us, aviate means making sure we keep the system operating safe. That's our primary mission before we spend time on other issues. You don't always go to your final destination, but as long as you're flying the airplane properly - you're in good shape.  

It took me a long time to find out my destination, you could fairly say that it took me four years to figure out what I want to be like. After decades of working in different roles in aviation, it turns out – apparently – I wanted to be the FAA Administrator and I was sworn in this past October. While it is certainly a challenging job, it is also full of opportunities and allows me to contribute to one of our country's greatest successes, which is aviation. More specifically, this astounding level of safety that we've achieved. A level of safety that we can never take for granted. It safe because we know safety is a team sport. Pilots, air traffic controllers, maintainers, engineers, safety inspectors, operators, and flight attendants - we all work together and are ever vigilant in keeping our systems safe.  

It’s safe because we all speak the same language, the language of safety, which is the real language of aviation. And I know you've learned a lot about safety at this great institution...and now you will embody and drive that safety culture moving forward. You will be the CEOs, the pilots, the controllers, the engineers, and the ones writing new regulations to allow innovation while keeping the system and the flying public safe.  

You are now part of this safety ecosystem, no pressure. Today, we are all looking for you, the next generation, to carry that safety torch forward. Apply what you learned here to keep the flying public safe, in their air taxi, on their supersonic flight, or during rocket launches. It's a big responsibility. It will require you to focus on your priorities - aviate, navigate, communicate - and build on the legacy that you are inheriting.  

Thank you for stepping up, and always remember to reach back and help those coming up behind you. May you have many blue skies. Thank you.