The Way Forward for American Aviation

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

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Mike [Gould]. It’s good to be back with fellow Academy graduates and friends.

I very much appreciate the Sabre Society’s invaluable commitment to giving back to the Academy, supporting the cadets there, and helping them be strong leaders.

Like many of you, my time at the Academy shaped my life in so many respects. It provided me with opportunities and a way forward that really instilled in me a dedication to the mission and commitment to service, and built lifelong camaraderie with my classmates.

I was reminded of that last week, when I was in Kansas City to celebrate Air Force Brigadier General Charles McGee – who as you may know was one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. He flew more combat missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam than any other Air Force pilot.

The Downtown Kansas City Airport was naming its new general aviation terminal after General McGee.

While I was there, we had a photo taken. It shows multiple generations of Air Force Academy graduates, ranging from 1979-2021.

You can see the rich heritage of the Academy, and the diversity in this picture. I was proud to be with these graduates.

And it just shows how the Academy continues to produce leaders with an ongoing dedication to the mission throughout their lives.

It’s certainly true for me at the FAA. Our mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.

I’m proud to lead a workforce of 45,000 people who are focused on that mission every single day.

We’re beginning to see an increase in passenger travel after more than a year of reduced travel due to COVID-19.

We want to help this part of the industry recover in a safe and efficient way.

While that’s happening, we continue to see rapid innovation with drones, commercial space activity, and other new vehicles.

And we’re facing heightened challenges too – like cyber threats and climate change.

Of course, this past year we have been dealing with COVID-19. When it started spreading quickly in the U.S., we acted quickly to make sure that flying would remain safe and efficient.

We took steps to protect our own employees – including air traffic controllers and technicians – from virus exposure and transmission. I’m very proud to say that the top two flight docs at the FAA are both blue suiters: Our Federal Air Surgeon, Susan Northrup, and Deputy Federal Air Surgeon, Brett Wyrick.

We created sterile teams of air traffic controllers and implemented cleaning and disinfecting protocols to keep people safe and the system going.

And we issued temporary, but critical, regulatory relief for industry, and exemptions for pilots on medical certificates and recurrent training – while ensuring that all safety needs were addressed.

We also blunted the economic impact of the pandemic in several ways.

We enabled air carriers to safely carry cargo in the cabin on passenger planes when there were no passengers onboard. This enabled them to offset some of the revenue lost when passengers stopped flying.

And we provided $20 billion in grants to eligible U.S airports to keep airport workers employed and construction projects going.

We worked with our neighboring Latin American and Caribbean air traffic counterparts to exchange timely pandemic-related information about airport closings, quarantine requirements, flight landing restrictions, and air traffic service interruption. This improved coordination helped increase access to international destinations and reduced delays and cancellations.

After vaccines were approved, we responded with lightning speed to provide medical guidance for pilots and air traffic controllers.

And in air traffic control, we prioritized flights carrying vaccines and medical personnel who were critical to our nation’s response and recovery.

These efforts allowed vaccines to get into arms more quickly, slowing the spread of the virus. 

On both a domestic and international level, we provided guidance for air carriers and airports to protect airline passengers and workers from virus exposure and transmission. We also provided guidance on virus testing, quarantining, and transporting of vaccines.

With air travel picking up now, we have safely ramped up air traffic service and are ready to meet the demand.    

While the commercial airline industry recovers, we continue to see rapid technological advances in other segments of aviation.

We’re seeing more drones, rockets, and other new vehicles.

Now we’re looking at the very real possibility of Advanced Air Mobility where people can take a remotely-piloted air taxi across town or to the airport.

Add on to that advances in artificial intelligence, data fusion, and other kinds of innovation.

The pace and breadth of these advances will only accelerate.

We want to enable this great innovation, while ensuring that ALL safety needs are met.

With drones, we currently have nearly 900,000 registered, and we’re forecasting more than two million commercial and recreational drones flying in the National Airspace System by 2024.

We’re seeing drones used for all kinds of purposes:

A missing woman was located by Virginia police using a drone with thermal imaging last December; 

The Savannah River National Laboratory uses a fleet of drones to monitor a nuclear waste site.

In Alameda County, California, drones are used to create 360 degree images of fire-devastated areas so residents can assess damage to their property without having to return to the dangerous area.

And last September, we saw Amazon Prime Air become the third FAA-certificated air carrier for drone package deliveries, joining Wing and UPS Flight Forward. And this past May, the largest retailer in the world—Walmart—partnered with a drone operator to explore how they can deliver goods by drone in North Carolina.

The FAA issued two major rules on drones earlier this year: The first is Operations Over People – this will enable more routine drone flights over people, but also more routine night operations and over moving vehicles. We also issued the Remote ID rule that requires drones to provide identification and location information that can be received by the FAA and law enforcement to locate operators when drones are flown in places and ways that pose a potential threat to safety and security, like near airports, for example.

And we recently formed a new rulemaking committee to help us develop a regulatory path for routine Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations. This committee will consider the safety, security, and environmental needs, as well as the societal benefits, of these operations.

This work will help pave the way for routine drone delivery of packages, infrastructure inspection, and other more complex drone operations beyond the visual line-of-sight of the remote pilot.

Like drones, the commercial space industry continues to grow and evolve at a fast pace.

Ten years ago (2011), the FAA had licensed only one space launch. This calendar year, we’re averaging more than one licensed space launch per week. 

We’ve taken steps to streamline launch and reentry requirements that better fit today’s industry.  

And we’re working to integrate these operations into the national airspace system. For one of these operations, we normally have to block off large amounts of airspace, making it temporarily unavailable for other airspace users.

Now, we’re developing tools that utilize the real-time telemetry data from the space vehicle. This allows us to block and release airspace more efficiently so it’s more quickly available to other airspace users.

All of this innovation is exciting. It offers tremendous potential for benefit. But it also brings many challenges to the forefront – like cyber security.

As the aviation ecosystem grows, it’s becoming more interconnected and reliant on data exchange.

This brings up the real concern of cyber threats – whether they be from Nation states, insiders, malicious terrorist or criminal actors, or even unwitting users. We have to put in place safeguards and mitigations to reduce the risk of these threats.

The FAA has a robust cyber security strategy. We take a proactive approach that focuses on managing cyber risk holistically across the entire agency.

We’re working with our partners in government, industry, and international aviation organizations to ensure that cybersecurity protocols and processes are in place for the entire Aviation Ecosystem.

For instance, we’re partnering with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security on an Aviation Cyber Initiative, so we can employ the best practices in cyber security.

And we need highly skilled people to help us safeguard our systems. I know the Air Force Academy has their new cyber center. They are recruiting for the top cyber cadets – and it reminds me of college athletes on signing day. There’s a lot of competition for highly skilled people in this area.

Another challenge facing aviation is environmental sustainability.

Under this Administration, the United States has made tackling the climate crisis a major priority.

The President announced a 2030 target to reduce our domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent compared to 2005 levels. And the Administration’s American Jobs Plan makes key investments in our nation’s sustainability efforts.

Of course, aviation is a key front in this battle. And the FAA is pursuing a number of efforts to make flying greener. 

We continue to research technology improvements to improve fuel efficiency.

We continue to research feedstocks and processes that can be used to develop sustainable aviation fuels.

We continue to reduce aircraft fuel burn through our NextGen air traffic modernization implementation. This includes our work to develop more fuel efficient air traffic procedures.

And we’re collaborating with our international aviation counterparts to make global aviation greener.  

The final challenge I want to discuss today is the need to recruit the next generation workforce in aviation and aerospace.

We need new pilots, engineers, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, maintenance technicians, mechanics, and drone operators.

We also need cybersecurity specialists, data analysts, program managers, communication specialists, and other professionals who play an essential role in the aviation and aerospace industry.

We want the best, brightest, most diverse set of people from all walks of life to be part of aviation and aerospace.

Much of our workforce comes here from the military. In fact, about 35% of the FAA workforce are veterans. They offer tremendous skill, integrity, strong core values, and leadership to the agency.

The FAA has been assisting the Department of Defense on a program that provides civil aviation maintenance training to service members, veterans, and their families. This training can be a springboard to future training to become FAA-certified A&P mechanics.

This year, we also started an aviation workforce grant program to support pilots and aviation maintenance technicians. We’re in the process of reviewing applications, and we hope to issue awards before the end of the year.

But whatever pathway one chooses, we want them to join us in the aviation and aerospace fields. We need to reach kids and young people in an inclusive and equitable way. Whether they grew up in the city, the suburbs, or on a farm, we want them to see the career opportunities in these fields.

In closing, the future of aviation continues to change rapidly. The new vehicles could change the way we live and work. The steps we’re taking will help secure these benefits for our country, but we keep that continuing duty to the mission of ensuring that all safety, security, and environmental needs are met.

Thanks everyone for the opportunity to speak to you today, and I’m happy to take some of your questions…