InfoShare Meeting, Baltimore, MD – Opening Remarks

Former Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen (April 1, 2022 – June 9, 2023)

Good morning, it’s good to see everyone.

Thank you to the more than 1,300 people here for participating in this week’s meeting. InfoShare has grown tremendously since its inception.

Back in 2007, I was one of the original signatories calling for us to bring ASIAS into InfoShare meetings. We wanted to have a protected means of bringing together safety data from across the industry to identify and understand the risks in the system. 

Since that time, we’ve made so much progress.

ASAP and other data collection efforts have matured. 

SMS programs have matured.

And we’ve built on the trust and transparency between government and industry.

Together, we’ve reduced the fatality risk in US commercial aviation by 95 percent over the past 25 years. And we’ve made significant strides across all other sectors in aviation. As a result, we’ve made flying the safest mode of transportation in the world.

But I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know.

The question is – where do we go next?

Because it’s no longer good enough to say that zero is the only the acceptable number for fatal accidents. 

Going forward, zero has to be the only acceptable number for serious incidents and close calls.

We are at an inflection point right now, with new and different stressors affecting the system.

Air travel is coming back in a big way since the pandemic. But the long layoff, coupled with the increased technical nature of our systems, might have caused some professionals to lose some of that muscle memory. 

On top of that, we’re contending with the loss of experience, as the pandemic forced many seasoned professionals into retirement.

We’re also seeing new and recent entrants like: eVTOLs, 100+ space launches, and various kinds of drones, all of which will continue to make our complex system even more complex to manage.

But how do we make the system safer when we have so few dots to connect? 

Simply put: we need to share more types of data, in greater amounts, at a faster rate than before.

And we have to continue our work to become predictive, not just preventive, when it comes to addressing risk.

The challenge for us is – when we’ve produced the kind of record we have, it’s easy to get comfortable. To get complacent. To think we have a handle on things.

There’s a natural tendency for organizations like ours to get set in our ways. Or to use a statistical metaphor, to “regress to the mean.” 

But the recent series of safety incidents remind us that we don’t have the luxury of complacency. As I noted at the FAA’s Safety Summit two weeks ago – vigilance can never take a day off.                                         

Today, when the safety data gets through all of the gatekeepers, it could be weeks before the system knows about it. By that time, the risk picture could have changed.

As a global aviation community, we have to be able to access the data in real-time. This will give us a more realistic picture of the risk lurking on any given day.

It reminds me of when we transitioned from radar to ADS-B. Radar updates every six seconds. When we see the radar blip on the screen, it tells us the aircraft is somewhere within six seconds of that spot.

ADS-B updates every second. So it’s a more accurate picture of where the aircraft actually is.

It’s the same way here. When we can access safety data in real-time, and access multiple sets of data, we have a more accurate picture of how safe the system actually is. 

In fact, this was one of the key recommendations that came out of the safety summit – sharing safety information in real-time at all levels of the industry.

I know what your concerns are. We have to protect the data, make sure it won’t be used in a punitive way. And we will continue to protect the data.

However, we must set a place at the table for everyone who can help us make the next big leaps in safety risk mitigation. 

Who are the entities that can help us?

We need everyone in the industry engaged, from the C-suite on down. Everyone in our industry has to be all in. 

And with SMS recently expanded to more segments of the industry, we will have access to more data. 

That’s great. But what about the new entrants? Do we have their voices at the table?

Our success in the future will be a function of how well we can anticipate what’s coming next, and be ready to identify and mitigate that risk.

But let’s also keep in mind that the people who can help us the most, may not be in our industry. And may not be in the room today.

At the Summit, an airline safety professional knew of a graduate student who was doing some interesting work in flight safety risk. He used various data to create a model that predicted runway incursions with 85 percent accuracy.

We have to make our data available faster so that experts like these can offer us solutions, while making sure the data is always protected.

We’ve dealt with trust barriers before. When ASIAS started, there were operators who were reluctant to submit data unless other operators were sharing it too. But we overcame that.

An operator needs a list of leading indicators that show how close they came to the edge of an accident on a particular day.

We can do that when we have a model that can predict problems before they become close calls. 

As a hard core Star Trek fan, I just want to call out “Computer” and get the data I want right away. That was one of the first depictions of voice-activated technologies. 

One possible model could be like the LAANC system that provides drone pilots with access to operate in controlled airspace. Pilots can receive their authorization in near-real time.

That’s a thought. But the goal must be to create this kind of model for real-time sharing of safety data, while ensuring its protection.

We’ve become really great at eliminating accidents. Nearly 15 years without a plane crash. Now, let’s develop a data sharing model that makes us really great at preventing serious incidents and close calls.

There’s a book by James Reason, titled The Human Contribution: Unsafe Acts, Accidents and Heroic Recoveries. He made a point that stuck with me. He said he’d love for there to be a time when things are so safe that there is no longer a need for a heroic intervention.

Our goal must be to build an aerospace system that is so resilient, that heroic intervention is almost never necessary.

I’m looking forward to the Safety Call to Action panel coming up shortly, and we’ll discuss more about key themes that came out of the Summit. 

So let’s have a stimulating meeting this week.