Opening Remarks - Aviation Surface Safety Summit

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

Thank you, Secretary Buttigieg, for your interest and leadership.

And thanks to all of you all for being here. I am pleased to see so many familiar faces in the audience and to know that you are taking the time to join us for this safety summit.

When I called this gathering a few weeks ago, it was because we had seen an uptick in incidents across the aviation system. In the intervening time, we’ve experienced additional incidents, including events on runways, terminal area ramps  — and even unruly passenger incidents that continue to defy logic.

I think I speak for all of us, and certainly the traveling public, when I say these events are concerning. They are not what we have come to expect during a time of unprecedented safety in the U.S. air transportation system.

The question is, what do they mean?

Many years ago, while I was still learning to fly, my instructor taught me a very important lesson: Listen to the airplane. Pay attention to what it is trying to tell you.

It’s a lesson that served me well throughout my career, and it’s one that applies here. As a safety community, we must pay attention to the events of recent months. What is the system trying to tell us?

I am honored to be joined today in this plenary session by former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt. Mr. Sumwalt will help facilitate a conversation among our panelists that I hope will help us frame our thinking. 

This plenary session will be followed by some specific breakout sessions designed to allow our various stakeholders to dive deeper into specific areas and have frank, open discussions.

One of the hallmarks of aviation and the people who pursue a life in this industry is a willingness to question conventional wisdom. And to always be looking for ways to advance safety.

As I mentioned in my call to action, the biggest mistake we can make as an industry is to become complacent. As a safety professional, if you are comfortable it means you’re probably missing something.

It’s in that light that my colleagues at the FAA and I have brought you together today. There is no question that aviation is amazingly safe. But vigilance can never take the day off.

We must ask ourselves difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions, even when we are confident that the system is sound.

For example, we all recognize the desire to make the maximum use of available airspace and runway capacity to keep the aviation system running smoothly and on time.

In light of the recent close calls and the attention being focused on even routine go-arounds — are we emphasizing efficiency over safety? How much of what we are seeing can be attributed to the sudden resurgence in demand following the pandemic?  

Since 1997, the aviation industry has made enormous strides in improving safety under the guidance of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST. As you know, the data-sharing and voluntary safety reporting programs under the CAST umbrella enabled us to reduce the risk of a fatal accident by 95 percent.

Instead of reacting to accidents and incidents after the fact, we are getting better at scouring flight data for precursors that allow us to identify a nascent event before it manifests itself as something more serious.

That’s an amazing accomplishment — and I believe that historians will look at the strides we have made under CAST as one of the great successes of the modern transportation age.

But we also must ask ourselves if the CAST process is nimble enough to help us reach the goal of eliminating the rare — but still concerning — incidents we’ve seen recently.

I want to say before we get started with our plenary panel that I appreciate the messages of support and pledges of cooperation that I have gotten personally from many of you in this room.

America’s aviation safety net is strong. Our goal — our obligation — is to sew those threads even tighter.

I want to encourage you to come into these sessions with an open mind. As I mentioned in the call-to-action, I want to hear from our stakeholders about concrete actions that we can take in the near- and medium term to make the world’s safest transportation system even safer.

Before we get started, I want take a moment to acknowledge that current Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy has joined us today. As we all know, the NTSB is taking its own, independent, look into many of these same issues and we are appreciative of the work they do.

I would like to ask Chair Homendy to the podium to share a few thoughts.