Working Together to Strengthen Our Safety Culture

Former Administrator, Michael Huerta (January 09, 2013–January 05, 2018)

Good morning everyone. Thank you, Sarah (MacLeod, Executive Director of ARSA).

It is a pleasure to be here with you today for what sounds to have been a very productive symposium. I want to take a moment to thank all of you for the vital work you do and for your professionalism. I often talk about the importance of doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. America has a very high standard for the aviation community and expects perfection from the aviation industry every hour, every day, all year long.

From the largest repair station down to the line mechanic, it all rests on our trust in the individual. The technicians have the knowledge and the tools. And while the FAA writes the rules, it really does come down to each one of you. We cannot regulate personal responsibility and pride. That is something that has to come from within each individual. ARSA members are experts in maintenance and design and production.

And there is a real professional satisfaction and personal pride in being part of aviation. I hope you realize that you are all part of something very special.

The FAA’s number one priority is safety. It’s our mission, and we focus on it 24 hours a day.

We have had a lot of focus on the Boeing 787. We are continuing the review of the critical systems of the aircraft, including the design, manufacture and assembly of the Dreamliner.

Our certification team has worked more than 3,600 hours to support the safe return of this aircraft to service. As part of this review, last week we approved Boeing’s certification plan for a redesigned battery system. This is the first step in the process to evaluate the 787’s return to flight.

What the plan includes is a redesign of the internal battery components to minimize a short circuit within the battery and has insulated the battery cells to prevent propagation from one cell to another. There are a total of eight cells in the battery. They also have added a robust battery containment and venting system to prevent a problem in the battery from spreading to the aircraft.

The certification plan includes a variety of ground tests and reviews that will enable Boeing to demonstrate whether the proposed fix is going to work as designed, and whether it complies with our regulations. We won’t allow the plane to return to service unless we’re satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.

Certification of the 787, as with certification of any new aircraft, will continue to be a collaborative effort between the FAA and manufacturers.

Aviation, from its very beginning, has stretched technological boundaries. For more than five decades, the FAA has compiled a proven track record of safely introducing new technology and new aircraft, and that is really a credit to the aviation industry.

As we continue to do this, I want to make one thing crystal clear. The FAA takes very seriously its responsibility to establish aircraft safety standards and certify new products and technologies. When we have a concern, we will analyze it until we are satisfied.

Some have asked the question whether the FAA has the expertise needed to oversee the Dreamliner’s cutting edge technology. The answer is yes, we have the ability to establish rigorous safety standards and to make sure that aircraft meet them. The best way to do this is to bring together the best minds and technical experts in aviation to work on understanding how these new systems work and how to establish and meet appropriate safety standards.

The way to enhance safety is to keep the lines of communication open between business and government – to foster the ability and willingness to share information about challenges we might be facing. We want to create an atmosphere where people feel they can share what they know, all in the pursuit of maintaining the highest level of safety. That’s why we’re all here.

We all want the same outcome. We want to harness advances in technology to produce safe aircraft. We will never lose sight of our respective roles, but that does not mean that there is not a seat at the table for bright minds from industry to help inform the best way to navigate the complex technological issues we encounter. It would be short-sighted to overlook anyone’s valuable expertise.

In addition to certification, we are also benefiting greatly from the sharing of ideas on aviation rulemaking committees. You are helping us to solve problems and I want to thank members of ARSA – and Sarah – who has played a big role in this – for your service on these aviation rulemaking committees.

These include the ARC on Consistency in Regulatory Interpretation; the ARC on airworthiness directives and the Safety Management Systems ARC. We convene these committees to work with the best minds in industry and to create the best policies to guide us in the future. So again, thank you for your involvement.

The best way to enhance safety across the board is to enhance the safety culture of an organization, and that is what we have been doing at the FAA. Part of this effort involves self-reporting by our own employees on safety issues. We are making a cultural shift inside the agency for more transparency and dialogue.

We have put programs in place for air traffic controllers and aviation technicians to report a problem, even a mistake they might have made – and not fear retribution. The goal is to encourage people to share information that we would not normally get in order to make the system even safer. This is a key element to taking a smarter, risk-based approach to safety.

We are taking many other actions to enhance safety across the board – including promoting safety management systems and sharing more information between industry and the FAA. By analyzing data, we are better able to identify trends and hazards that exist all across the system and mitigate issues before something happens.

Our goal at the FAA is to take aviation to the next level of safety and to leverage technology to make air travel more efficient and much more sustainable.

 As you all know, we are trying to do this now in a very challenging fiscal environment. The sequester is requiring the FAA to make significant cuts in services and investments.

These cuts will impact air traffic control services, our implementation of NextGen, and our certification and safety services.

Because we are in an especially difficult budget environment right now, I do want to set realistic expectations for certification and oversight efforts under the sequester.

While we will manage them as best we can, there will be impacts.

Our aviation safety inspectors will have to focus their attention on the most pressing priorities and devote their time to overseeing current activities to ensure continued safety. We are not in a position to take on a lot of new projects.

The sequester requires us to cut more than $600 million from the FAA’s budget. We are looking at all options to reduce costs – we have implemented a hiring freeze, we are cutting contracts, and we’re reducing travel and other items not related to day-to-day operations.

But, to reach the large figure we need to cut, we have sent notices to 47,000 FAA employees letting them know that they could be furloughed up to one day every two weeks. Furloughs will begin on April 21, and are expected to continue for the remainder of the fiscal year, which runs until Sept. 30th. Unlike government shutdowns that we have seen before, the furloughs include critical personnel such as air traffic controllers and safety inspectors.

This also means we will have to cut back on preventative maintenance, meaning that critical airfield equipment might not be repaired as quickly. This could lead to delays.

Safety remains the FAA’s top priority, and we will only allow the amount of air traffic we can handle safely to take off and land. This translates into probable delays for travelers.

Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco could experience delays up to 90 minutes during peak hours. The reason for this is because controllers will be working fewer hours, and there will be limited flexibility in shifting or reassigning controllers to other duties. Delays in those major airports will ripple across the country.

We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate, and general aviation operators. And we also expect that airlines will consider changes to their schedules, or even cancel flights as they realize the effects of the furloughs.

The FAA has notified 189 airports across the country with federal contract towers that their facilities could be closed. These towers, when taken together collectively, handle less than 3 percent of commercial operations nationally and less than 1 percent of passengers. We expect to make a final decision today on whether any of these towers should remain open. We are taking into consideration whether closing them would adversely affect the national interest.

It is my hope, and the hope of everyone at the FAA and the Department of Transportation that our leaders can work together to rally around the improvements that we need for our air transportation system.

We all know that it’s important for us to work together to protect the great contribution that civil aviation makes to our economy. Aviation is our largest export industry. It strengthens our balance of trade. It adds $1.3 trillion to the economy and provides 10 million jobs.

As we move forward in uncertain times, I think we all need to remember that we share the common bond of aviation. We may face budget and other challenges, but we are all part of a very special and historic time in aviation. Many of you have heard me say before that we are making critical decisions over the next several years that will affect the air transportation system in this country for decades to come.

Whether you are a mechanic or whether you run a repair station; whether you design or produce aircraft, I look forward to working with you on our common goal to ensure that America continues to operate the largest and safest aviation system in the world. The coming months will be challenging, but we’ll get through them together.