Pillars of Safety

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

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s been a few years since I was last here. So this feels like a bit of a homecoming to me.

As you just heard, I know what it’s like to be sitting where you are.

Now I find myself back at the FAA, which is a real honor.

And I’m not sure if many of you know this, but we’re hitting a big milestone this month.

The FAA is turning 60.

And it’s had me reflecting on how far we’ve come – not only as an agency, but as a community.

Aviation didn’t start out as the safest form of transportation in the world. Far from it.

The earliest years of flight were filled with trial and error… tragedy and sacrifice.

But today, we’re the gold standard. Over the last twenty years, commercial aviation fatalities in the U.S. have decreased by 95 percent.

So how’d we do it?

Now, I’m not going to stand up here and claim that everything good that’s happened in aviation safety over the last few decades is thanks to the FAA. It’s just not true.

My colleague from PHMSA, Skip Elliott, said it yesterday: regulation alone can’t achieve the kind of results we demand for aviation.

We’re as safe as we are today because we collaborate. Airlines… pilots… manufacturers… mechanics… and yes, the FAA.

It’s old news to everybody here. ASRS reports, ASAP reports, VDRP, FOQA… This is the culture we came up in. In a lot of ways, it’s all we know.

But every decade or so, this catches the attention of folks who aren’t in the aviation business. And it makes them scratch their heads.

What do you mean, the government is working with the airlines? Aren’t you supposed to be regulating those guys?

And I get it. I get that thought process.

But the relationship that exists between the FAA and the industry it regulates is the driving force behind our unprecedented safety record.

I’m sure some of you have been following the developments in the automated vehicles world. It’s hard not to.

Just about every week, there’s a new story about which company will be first to market. Who’s got the best tech. The safest systems.

We don’t do that in aviation. We don’t compete on safety.

When an incident occurs in the system, it doesn’t just happen to one airline. It happens to all of us. It shakes the public’s confidence in the entire industry.

So we all know safety isn’t just good for business – it’s our only business.

That’s why the FAA and the aviation industry have worked together to create a safety culture that’s built on three key ideas.

The first is voluntary reporting.

In order to keep improving our procedures, we need good data. And the best way to get it is directly from you – the people working and flying in the system.

We’ve set up programs that allow aviation professionals to share critical safety data without fear of punishment. And the information we’ve received has been invaluable.

That leads me to the second pillar of our safety culture: risk management.

Once we’ve collected all of this data, we analyze it and look for trends to emerge. Then we identify areas of risk that can be addressed before incidents occur.

And that’s the third piece of the puzzle: effective mitigation.

Once we find an issue, the question becomes: how do we deal with it?

Inadvertent mistakes can often be traced back to flawed processes or a lack of understanding. In those circumstances, we work with the airlines to develop safety enhancements that will mitigate the risk. Then we monitor the situation to make sure the solution works.

This is the most effective way to allow for an open exchange of information while still ensuring compliance.

Now, this doesn’t mean strong enforcement isn’t still a tool available to the FAA. It absolutely is. Voluntary reporting isn’t some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card.

When we find intentionally reckless behavior, flagrant violations, or simply a refusal to comply with corrective actions, we levy fines and take legal actions. Even revoke a company’s ability to operate.

But that’s extremely rare. In most cases, airlines adopt our safety measures voluntarily. Because everybody operating within the aviation industry shares the same goal: making our system as safe as possible.

And that’s allowed us to build an environment of mutual trust.

Let me give you an example of what this safety culture looks like in action.

Last year, a commercial airline crew landed on a taxiway instead of a runway at an airport without a control tower.

The crew voluntarily reported the incident to the FAA. And since they knew they could speak freely without fear of reprisal, they were comfortable discussing exactly what happened.

Turns out, the only lights they saw were coming from the taxiway.

Thanks to the crew’s report, we found that a flooded electrical box had extinguished the runway lights. And the problem was fixed before another flight crew could make the same mistake.

Voluntary reporting. Risk management. Effective mitigation.

Now, it’s important to note: this system only works if each one of those three prongs is functioning properly. Without any one of them, the whole thing falls apart.

So I think it’s pretty clear: Working with industry doesn’t lower the bar on safety. It’s what allows us to raise it even higher.

We’re going to need these partnerships more than ever if we’re going to tackle the challenges heading our way in the future.

We have entirely new classes of users asking for airspace access. Drones and commercial space vehicles are here – and they’re not going away.

A lot of these companies don’t have experience working in the aviation business. They don’t understand the culture we’ve built, and how important it is.

So it’s incumbent upon us to welcome them into the fold. And to share the lessons we’ve learned. Especially the lessons written in blood.

We also need to make sure we’re ready for the dramatic increase in air traffic we’re going to see in the coming decades.

Last year, IATA forecast that the number of air passengers traveling will nearly double by 2036. That’s 7.8 billion passengers worldwide.

I don’t know how else to say this, but: we’re going to need a lot of pilots to fly those folks around.

Now, I know there’s some skepticism out there about whether there is a real problem with the pilot supply pipeline. But we can see the trends – and they don’t look promising.

In the last ten years, the number of private pilots holding active airmen certificates has decreased by 27 percent. The number of commercial pilots in the same period has decreased by 21 percent.

The military, which used to be one of our best sources for new hires, isn’t turning out as many pilots as it used to.

College aviation programs don’t have enough instructors to teach new students, because they’re taking jobs with the airlines as soon as they log enough time.

Only about 40 percent of commercial airline pilots are under the age of 45. And the huge bubble of B-scale hires in the 80s – of which I am one – will create a tsunami of retirements in the next 5 to 10 years that’s going to further deplete the ranks.

Some of your employers are already starting to take action on this – with in-house training programs and increased salaries.

But this something we all need to pay attention to.

Ensuring an adequate pilot supply doesn’t fall under the FAA’s jurisdiction. But it is our responsibility to ensure the pilots we do have receive the best training, and are held to the highest standards.

We’re not going to compromise on this.

So if there aren’t enough qualified pilots to meet the demand we know is coming, it’s going to reduce the potential growth of the industry – and impact our national economy.

Nobody wants that.

We also can’t assume the way pilots learn and gain experience should remain static. We don’t rest on our laurels. Just like on safety, our work here is never really finished.

We have to look at data. We have to address emerging risks. And we have to consider how advancements in technology should be factored in to how we measure a pilot’s qualifications.

The FAA has been improving our training program standards across all categories for a number of years. And we’re going to continue looking at the tools and options available to us so that America’s pilots remain the best in the world.

But we know this is a shared responsibility.

That’s why the FAA is holding an Aviation Workforce Symposium at Reagan National Airport on September 13th.

We’re going to be bringing together a wide variety of stakeholders to discuss how we can attract more young people to the aviation industry, improve the quality and efficiency of training, and build better partnerships to support our next generation of pilots and aviation technicians.

Now, I know this is a topic that a lot of people care about. And I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of passionate discussions. I welcome it. This is a conversation we need to have – as a community.

Because the importance of pilot qualifications can’t be overstated.

We all prepare for the worst-case scenario – while praying it never comes. And for most of us, it doesn’t.

But when it does, good training can make the difference between life and death.

Look at what happened with Southwest 1380. If any of us got a situation like that in a simulator, we’d call it a dial-a-disaster.

Catastrophic engine failure, explosive depressurization, passenger medical emergency… But this was real life.

And Captain Shults, First Officer Ellisor, and their crew exemplified grace under pressure. They got that plane back on the ground.

It was a near-perfect application of excellent training by an experienced team. It probably saved a lot of lives. And I can’t thank them enough for their heroism that day.

That’s the real reason for aviation’s safety record. All of you. Our pilots. Our controllers. Our mechanics. Our manufacturers. All professionals.

The United States went more than nine years and two months without a passenger fatality in commercial aviation.

That’s about 90 million flights. And one life lost.

A lot of people look at that record and say, “Wow, that’s incredible.” And it is.

But I also look at it and think: “It’s not good enough.” It can’t be.

Jennifer Riordan. 43 years old. A wife. A mom. On her way back home to her family.

I think about her a lot. I think we all do.

Aviation is the only form of transportation on the planet where the idea of perfection actually seems within reach.

We always have the opportunity to do more. To be better.

We can’t – we won’t – stop reaching.

Thank you.