Safety Through Integrity, Innovation and People

Administrator Stephen M Dickson (August 12, 2019 - present)

Remarks As Delivered


Thank you for that kind introduction, Paul. It’s good to be here at the Washington Aero Club among so many friends and colleagues. You know, I’m a bit embarrassed to say this, but this is the first time I’ve been to a Washington Aero Club luncheon, despite being in the aviation business for 40 years. It wasn’t anything deliberate on my part, even though there are many familiar faces here—it’s just that our paths never crossed at this venue. Actually, truth be told, somebody told me you have to give up your “outside the Beltway” membership card if you come to one of these, so that’s why I stayed away.

I’m also thrilled to be here today to see Carl receive the Engen Trophy. As you all know, Carl is the epitome of a public servant, and he’s passionate about aviation. We at the FAA are better because of him, and the American public has benefited greatly from Carl’s leadership and dedication. It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to work with him, and call him colleague and friend. Congratulations, Carl.

It’s hard not to be passionate about an industry that makes our world smaller. Aviation fundamentally redefines geographic boundaries, provides tremendous economic opportunities, and connecting people and cultures in ways that were unimaginable not too long ago.  And I know the people in this room- regardless of differences in perspectives and experiences--share a common bond--a love for aviation. We also share a commitment to enhancing the benefits aviation offers our citizens today, as well as the promise it holds to connect the world in the decades ahead.

That’s why I’m here—because I love aviation, and I love people. It’s a privilege to lead. I’ve discovered great people at the FAA, and as you might imagine I’m getting a lot of advice about how to run the place. Now, some of that advice has been more helpful than other advice has. But seriously, it’s already been a rewarding adventure.


Now I know you’re probably asking yourself, “Why did you do it, Steve? Why become FAA Administrator?” Several people asked me the same question when I was going through the confirmation process. One of those people was my wife, who also questioned my sanity at several points along the way. The FAA was actually an unplanned diversion from our original flight plan. I was looking for what the next thing would be after my military and airline career. My wife thought it would be retirement.

But when Secretary Chao called me and asked if I’d consider leading the FAA, I said I’d be interested in talking about it.  FAA Administrator is not something you aspire to or even contemplate, but if I could help make a difference, I could think of no better way to serve my country in a way that allows me to use my passion for flying and my four decades of experience in the aviation industry.  I am both humbled and grateful that I have the chance to lead the FAA at this historic--and challenging--time. But challenges create opportunities, don’t they?

My experience includes flying F-15 fighters in our Air Force and 27 years at Delta Air Lines.  At Delta, I flew as a line pilot for the first nine years of my career, eventually qualifying on the B727, B737, B757, B767 and A320 series aircraft. The last 12 years I served as the Senior Vice President of Flight Operations.

During a visit to an aviation high school last month, one of the students asked me my favorite plane to fly during my airline career. I said I liked them all, but my favorite big jet is the 757. But I’m also fond of the 727, where I started out as a flight engineer.  Even though I was qualified as a fighter pilot, the most difficult training program I ever completed was as a flight engineer trainee in the 727 at Delta. On that airplane the flight engineer was the system integrator, and you had to really have a detailed understanding of every system on the aircraft. Sitting down in front of the engineer panel was something very foreign for a single-seat fighter pilot. Early in training, staring at the banks of amber indicator lights on the panel while figuring out what to do—if a student hesitated the instructors would joke that you were sitting there “getting a suntan.”

But it was a great way to learn about airline operations. The way the cockpit was laid out, the flight engineer was always working with the flight attendants, working customer service issues, working with the captain on checklists, all the time gaining valuable insight into how the captain was managing the flight deck and making decisions.

As SVP of flight ops, I was responsible for the safety and operational performance of the company’s global flight operations of more than a million flights a year on six continents, as well as pilot training, crew resources, crew scheduling and regulatory compliance. That job made me understand this simple fact: regardless of change, increasing complexity or competition-- safety always has to remain the focus and bedrock of our industry.

So now three months into my job here at the FAA, let me share a few observations. I’ll start out by saying I feel a little like that new-hire flight engineer—a lot experience, but a completely new environment and a lot to learn!


Not surprisingly, I’ve been in a lot of conversations about the Boeing 737 MAX. 

On behalf of everyone at the FAA, I would like to, once again, extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air accidents. Many nations, including the United States, had citizens on those flights. Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell and I have met with the family members and friends of those onboard. Each time we meet, we see their pain, their loss, and it reaffirms the seriousness with which we must approach safety every single day. We want our citizens and our own families to have confidence in the aviation system when they travel. These accidents should not have happened. That is why we, as regulators and operators, work so hard in our jobs every day. 

I will tell you this, and if you don’t remember anything else I say today, please remember this:  I am absolutely committed to honoring the memory of those who lost their lives, by working tirelessly—each and every day of my tenure—to ensure the highest possible margin of safety in the global aviation system. We will never rest. We can always find ways to improve. We can always do better. Safety is a journey, not a destination—a journey we undertake each and every day with humility and a focus on continuous improvement.

I’ve said this before but will continue to repeat it: the FAA’s return-to-service decision for the MAX will be based solely on our assessment of the sufficiency of Boeing’s proposed software updates and pilot training that addresses the known issues for grounding the aircraft. We are not delegating anything. When we finally take the decision to return this aircraft to service, it will be the most scrutinized aircraft in history. It will also be one of the safest machines to ever take to the sky. I am not going to sign off on this aircraft until I fly it myself and am satisfied that I would put my own family on it without a second thought.

As both Dan and I have said, we welcome scrutiny and feedback on how we can improve our processes. Several independent reviews have been undertaken of the 737 MAX and the FAA’s certification and delegation processes. The first to be completed was one we commissioned–asking 9 other authorities to join us in the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) to assess the Boeing 737 MAX flight control system certification. Never before have 10 authorities come together to conduct a review of this sort. And I want to emphasize that we invited this probing review by our peer regulators. That is the FAA at its best. We welcome the JATR’s recommendations, and I appreciate their thorough review and hard work.

We also created a Technical Advisory Board, or TAB, made up of FAA Chief Scientists and experts from the U.S. Air Force, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, and NASA. The TAB’s job is to conduct an independent review of the proposed integrated system, training, and continued operational safety determination for the 737 MAX. The TAB recently briefed members of Congress and myself on their progress and status of Boeing’s and the FAA’s response to the Return to Service action items.

Work also continues on the Department of Transportation’s IG audit of the 737 MAX certification, as well as congressional investigations.  And we welcome the recent recommendations issued by the NTSB. Finally, we are also awaiting a report from the Secretary’s Special Committee on aircraft certification. This blue-ribbon panel was established earlier this year to advise and provide recommendations to the Department on policy-level topics related to certification across the manufacturer spectrum.

Willingness to accept critique is a sign of humility and transparency. It is also a strength. I have seen this firsthand as I’ve met our regulatory counterparts around the world. They appreciate and value US leadership. They understand that by working together, we will all be better and raise the bar on global aviation safety.

Going forward beyond the MAX, some key themes are emerging regarding aircraft certification processes not only in the US, but around the world. I am committed to addressing each of these issues.  They include:

  • moving toward a more holistic versus transactional, item-by-item approach to aircraft certification;
  • integrating human factors considerations more effectively throughout the design process, as aircraft become more automated and systems more complex;
  • ensuring coordinated and flexible information flow during the oversight process.

An Exciting Time

While attention has been rightfully focused on the 737MAX, we are also focused on integrating innovative new entrants into the NAS. If you’ve been watching your FAA Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds, you’ve certainly seen the boom in the unmanned aircraft and commercial space sectors.

We’ve already registered about 1.5 million small drones, about 400,000 of which are for commercial purposes, and we’ve approved two Part 135 drone operators. As a point of reference for how fast this industry is moving, the FAA and its predecessors have been registering manned aircraft for 92 years, and after only four years of registering drones, we’ve got four times as many on the books.

UPS and FedEx are actively participating in trials to speed up the delivery of small packages and working on type certificates for small autonomous drones. Innovators up in Alaska are looking to do the same with much larger vehicles. We are learning a great deal about the innovative ways that drones can help society through our Integration Pilot Program, which Secretary Chao launched two years ago. Our strategy of “operations first,” is allowing us to use the existing regulatory regime, which helps us ensure innovation can drive forward. Said another way, over the last 3 years, we’ve shifted from writing rules to getting machines in the air and flying—and taking lessons learned from the operations approval process to write better rules. The vision is to integrate, rather than segregate, UAS into the NAS.

Through the Integration Pilot Program, we are partnering with 9 state, local and tribal governments and industry to inform UAS regulations, policy and guidance by learning from practical applications. Perhaps more importantly, these efforts have become the match that is lighting a creative fire in the industry and for what this novel new form of transportation might achieve.

Flying taxis—aka urban air mobility—are on the horizon and chomping at the bit to begin airspace testing. According to the FAA UAS team, we are currently engaged with the builders of more than 15 electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft projects.

Airframers are eyeing a potential renaissance in supersonic civil aircraft and startup civil space companies are looking to connect New York and Shanghai in less than 40 minutes.  Commercial space launch activity has ramped up tenfold in just a few years. Just yesterday we saw a successful FAA-licensed and certified commercial space launch, which deployed 60 communications satellites to low Earth orbit.

Life-saving automation technologies are coming to smaller and smaller aircraft. Late last month, a prominent avionics maker unveiled a new product development that highlights the promise.  In a nutshell, if the pilot of a small plane equipped with this technology becomes incapacitated, the passengers now have a chance. They push a button on the panel, and the automation takes over and lands the plane at the nearest suitable airport. Imagine that!

All of this is exciting. As the regulator, we must find ways to operate ahead of the rate of change of the industry. This will require us to improve continuously and avoid bureaucratic inertia. We have to leverage our collective experience without allowing the attitude of “we’ve always done it that way” to be an obstacle.

Safety First

So how do we reconcile incredibly bright and innovative minds and fast-moving technologies with a reinvigorated regulatory agency that wants and needs innovation, but at the same time maintains safety as its North Star? 

We do it by sticking to our core values of “safety, through integrity, innovation and people.” And I see our strategy coalescing around four themes:

  • Big data;
  • Just culture;
  • Global leadership; and
  • People. 

Big Data: We must continue leaning into our role as a data-driven, risk-based decision-making oversight organization that prioritizes safety above all else. We do that by breaking down silos between organizations and implementing Safety Management Systems supported by compliance programs. We look at the aviation ecosystem as a whole, including how all the parts interact: aircraft, pilots, engineers, flight attendants, technicians, mechanics, dispatchers, air traffic controllers—everyone and everything in the operating environment. 

Just Culture: In addition to the technical work required for truly integrated data, a key enabler of a data-driven safety organization is a healthy reporting culture. A good safety culture produces the data you need to figure out what’s really happening. If we know about safety risks and we know where threats are coming from and how errors are occurring, we can mitigate the risks and fix the processes that led to those errors. A good safety culture demands that we infuse that safety data into all of our processes from top to bottom—in a continuous loop.  

To be successful, a safety organization relies on a Just Culture that places great value on front-line employees and those involved in the operation raising and reporting safety concerns in a timely, systematic way, without fearing retaliation. That requires that a Just Culture starts at the top. It’s something leadership has to nurture and support. Employees have to see the results, see what the data is showing, how the agency or company is using analysis tools to identify risks and errors and put actions in place to mitigate them.

From the perspective of an operations leader at an airline, Safety Management Systems allowed us to find out about issues and put preventative measures in place before an accident or incident occurs. Of course, there were certain actions that were out of bounds for example, if someone intentionally violated a rule. But if someone made an honest mistake, we would put corrective actions in place to make sure we addressed the issues systemically. Sometimes, it might involve retraining a crew, but in those cases where the data indicated a trend, the corrective actions often involved modifications to processes, procedures, policies or training.

Global Leadership: When you think about how far aviation has come in a little more than a century—from the barnstorming days to a safety record that is the envy of all modes of transportation—it’s hard to argue the value of these safety tools and the importance of the FAA’s leadership. Today, the U.S. aviation system is the safest, most dynamic and innovative in the world, and we have the numbers to prove it. This is largely due to these collaborative approaches to safety championed by the FAA and by many of the people in this room. Last Friday I spent some time out at MITRE with the ASIAS (Aviation Safety Information And Sharing) team. ASIAS is one of the crown jewels of the aviation safety system in the United States. It is unique in the world. This is an example of the kind of collaboration and safety innovation we can use to lead the global aviation safety system to even higher levels of performance. By working with and mentoring other authorities around the world, we will work to ensure we meet the public’s expectations of the highest possible levels of safety globally, even in areas we don’t regulate directly. Over the years the FAA has done more than any other organization around the world to promote and develop global aviation safety. We have an opportunity to do even more. We will do more.

Think about why you are here. At our core, we are all about working together to increase the margin of safety, because without that, we have nothing.

Maintaining the highest levels of safety, while adapting to technological advancements, is a key part of that success for all of us, here and around the world. Without safety as a foundation, we cannot have a vibrant aviation industry in any country, much less between countries. As it is, our international air transportation network is a tightly woven fabric that is dependent on all of us making safety our core value.

People: That brings me to my final point—people. We live in an exciting time in aviation, with new emerging technologies and capabilities. I’ve told some that this might be the most exciting time in aviation since the introduction of the jet engine or maybe even all the way back to the DC-3. But at its core, a huge technical operations and regulatory agency like the FAA is made of people—people who are driven to serve, people with families, hopes and dreams, people who want satisfying and fulfilling careers. I have the utmost respect for the job that they do every day, making sure our skies are safe and that the operation of the system is as efficient—and serves the public—as well as it possibly can. It’s now time to show that next generation of aviation leaders what incredible opportunities lie ahead for them in our field, both personally and professionally. It is the people who will innovate and collaborate to take us to the next level of safety, operational excellence and opportunity. 


Aviation’s hard lessons and the industry’s hard work have paved the way to creating a global aviation system with an enviable safety record. But as I said earlier, safety is a journey, not a destination. What we have done in the past and what we are doing now will not be good enough in the future. We must build on the lessons learned, and we must never allow ourselves to become complacent.

Those lessons teach us that in order to prevent the next accident from happening, we have to look at the overall aviation system and how all the pieces interact. If we don’t do this and instead focus on a single factor, we will miss opportunities to improve our margin of safety.

That will require truly integrated data, enterprise-wide. When our data—and our organizations—are kept in silos, we may miss information that could provide an opportunity to make important safety decisions that will improve processes or even prevent accidents entirely. We have to be constantly learning from each other – regulator and those we regulate—to help each other improve. That’s the only way the system is going to get better.

We at the FAA are prepared to take the lead in this new phase of system safety, a task we approach with a spirit of humility and openness. That’s a strength we have as a country. We will lead. We have to.

Thank you for your time and hospitality today. I look forward to serving and getting to know the Aero Club and its members much better in the coming years. It’s great to be with you—even if we’re inside the Beltway!