International Aviation Club Luncheon

Former Acting Administrator, Daniel K. Elwell (February 2018–August 09, 2019)

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

As you can tell from that kind introduction, I’ve been in the aviation industry for about 80 years… or, most of my adult life.

I’ve been fortunate to see aviation from so many vantage points. Of course, none better than the view from the cockpit.

But, my time at the FAA has been extremely rewarding. And it’s such an honor to be back with the opportunity to help shape an agency I’ve always admired, at a time when its work is more important than ever.

It’s also very cool to be invited to speak to the International Aviation Club. I’ve been a member for years. So many good friends and colleagues I’ve gotten to know and work with over the past few decades are here today. It’s great to see you all.

Aviation has always been defined by change —because it is constantly reshaping the world we live in. But the pace of change happening in the world right now is unique – even by our standards.

I was recently in London, where Brexit and its March 2019 deadline is on everyone’s mind. As the clock runs down, removing uncertainty about the UK’s relationship with the global aviation community only becomes more important.

It has the potential to affect passengers, businesses, and the entire global supply chain. If you make, operate, or maintain aircraft on either side of the Atlantic, Brexit will affect you.

So I knew I spoke for the entire aviation community when I shared with my European counterparts that it is in everyone’s best interest to reach a decision on the aviation components of Brexit as soon as possible. We have to get this right.

But in many ways, this is one of the easier issues our industry is dealing with right now.

We’ve been certificating aircraft for decades. We know what agreements we need to have in place to ensure safe and efficient operations. We have clarity — we need focus. We must stay focused on minimizing disruptions and supporting a seamless transition. And by “we”, I mean all of us.

A lot of other questions we need to answer – about access, technology, and safety – are much more complicated. And we’ve been facing those questions — here in the U.S., and around the world — for years.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Uber Elevate conference in Los Angeles. During a panel, I was asked if I would ever ride in an autonomous aerial taxi. The question sounded almost surreal. That used to be Jetsons stuff. Now, it’s right around the corner – we’re talking when, not if.

But, the list of “how do we?” questions is not to be taken lightly. How do we safely integrate these new users into our already busy airspace? How do we harness technology to modernize the way we manage air traffic? How do we maintain the safety of our system without stifling innovation?

The questions aren’t new, but just because they’re familiar doesn’t make answering them any easier. And we’re doing it at a time when some folks are wondering: Are we up to the task?

There’s a perception out there that government is where good ideas go to die. Too many bureaucrats. Nothing gets done. And that makes people not want to work with us.

The pace of change is too fast. The scope of work is too big. The stakes are too high. We can’t afford to be alienating the pioneers… the trailblazers… the groundbreakers. They’re the foundation of our industry. And we need them at our table.

So if there’s one message you need to hear, from the Trump Administration, Elaine Chao’s DOT, and the FAA, it’s this: The era of red tape strangling good ideas is over.

We’re building a bigger table – not just for traditional aviation stakeholders, but the newest Silicon Valley start-ups. We’re doing away with outdated processes that don’t work in today’s aviation system. And if people come into my office and say the reason we do something a certain way is because that’s the way it’s always been done? You better believe I’m sending them back to the drawing board.

At the very time when American innovators are leading the charge by doing things in a new way, government has to keep up. The FAA has to keep up. If there’s a way for us to improve a process, we’ve got to lead the way. That’s what makes us a world leader in aviation, in safety, in efficiency.

But, I know…talk is cheap. You’re thinking…what does this look like in the real world?

Earlier this month, I joined Secretary Chao to announce ten UAS pilot program sites across the country where state, local, and tribal governments will be working with private industry to demonstrate and study expanded drone operations.

We will get a better understanding of how operations over people, beyond visual line of sight ops, and flying drones at night work at the local level. The information we gain from these trials will not only help us expand the regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft nationwide, but it will also help us determine the appropriate level of local control.

We’re changing our approach to commercial space launches. It’s not enough to just accommodate this growing industry. We need to fully integrate it into our airspace.

We’re using new technologies like the Space Data Integrator to make launches less disruptive to nearby airspace users. And we’re revamping our licensing process to make it easier for commercial space operators to receive the approvals they need more quickly.

This attitude also extends to certification. We’re moving toward a more performance-based system where the FAA sets safety standards and lets manufacturers figure out the best way to meet them.

A rule overhauling how we certify small general aviation aircraft went into effect last year. And while it’s going to take some time, we plan to apply these same principles to more aircraft categories, including UAS, moving forward.

We also remain committed to modernizing our air traffic control system.

I’ll be the first to admit: the debate around the FAA’s latest reauthorization didn’t go the way I hoped it would. And while I’m happy to see a long-term bill on the horizon, I worry it still doesn’t tackle some of the larger funding and management issues we face.

But I’m not going to stop using the megaphone I’ve been handed to make sure our workforce gets the resources and technology it needs to keep delivering the level of safety and efficiency the American people expect. And we’re going to continue working with industry to prioritize our modernization efforts.

Now, let me be clear about something: Making the FAA a better partner to the aviation industry doesn’t mean we’re cutting corners on safety.

Our commitment to being the gold standard is not going to change. In fact, we’re setting the bar even higher. We’re just not going to tell you how to clear it. We know this industry is going to solve some of the challenges we’re facing more quickly and more creatively than the FAA ever could alone.

We need our partners in the international community, as well.

The challenges facing the FAA aren’t unique. Civil aviation authorities around the world are grappling with the same issues. And the United States doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas.

Working together, we can — and do — get things done. We already have an impressive record of achievement… from reducing aviation’s environmental impact, and harmonizing our air traffic control systems… to sharing safety data, and streamlining our certification processes.

There’s so much we can learn from each other that can help us reach the next level of safety.

I come from a military background. My father was a Marine, and I was in the Air Force. Growing up as the son of a Marine, and later, as an officer myself, I learned that leadership isn’t a fixed point.

You can’t just declare yourself a leader one day, then say: I’m done. Instead, you must keep asking yourself: How can I do more? How can I be better?

Our industry has always been like that. Aviation certainly didn’t start out as the safest mode of travel on the planet — far from it. But it is today.

No one handed us our current safety record. We did the work. You did the work. Together, we earned it.

But that doesn’t mean our job is done. And we can’t become complacent. The last few weeks have been a tough reminder… one fatality in our system is one too many.

How can we do more? How can we be better?

We ask ourselves those questions every day at the FAA. But we can’t answer them alone. Aviation doesn’t have borders, or boundaries. We’re a global community. We don’t compete on safety. And there’s no limit to what we can achieve when we work together.

So the United States stands ready to lead, and ready to partner with anyone who shares our vision for the future of aviation.

A future that is safe. A future that is innovative. A future that is limitless.

Oh… I almost forgot… The answer I gave to the question of whether I would ever consider riding in an autonomous aerial taxi? It was the same answer most of you would have given: In a heartbeat. Sign me up.

Thank you for the invitation to be here today.