World Aviation Training Summit 2024 Keynote Address

Administrator Michael Whitaker (October 2023 - Present)

Great introduction. And thanks for inviting me back. Andy, the work you're doing is really important. I'm one of those that didn't raise your hand because I have been here before, I think it was 2016. And glad to see that the crowd continues to grow.  

I want to offer a special welcome to our international guests. I understand there are 50 different countries represented here. And it's just really great to see. As Rick mentioned, I've been in this position for about six months now. I will confirm that has been a very exciting six months. This is a very exciting job. If any of you are looking for something as a capstone to your career and you want excitement, suspense, drama… and that's just the confirmation process… highly recommend it.  

As Rick alluded to, we've had a number of very high-profile incidents. I didn't know that term plug door before January after 30 years in industry, but now I know it very well. We've had incidents of parts departing aircraft, close calls. My focus, not surprisingly, since day one in this position has been on those safety risks, identifying those risks, and mitigating those risks. And I think we all know that we've got a system that's a little bit out of balance. Demand came roaring back after COVID. We've got workforce shortages, training challenges, and so I've been very focused on trying to get those dynamics lined up to make sure the system maintains that safe record.  

So, I'll just make a few observations from my first six months. I think one - I have to start on a positive note. This is an absolutely amazing time to be in this industry. I've been in this industry for 35 years, and have seen a lot of ups and downs, a lot of bankruptcies, a lot of mergers. And I know when you hear Erica talk, she's been through this ride as well - furloughs for pilots, very poor wages for pilots, all that has changed. It's a much more stable industry.  

We've been through, I think, maybe all the mergers we're going to see. And it's a great time to be a pilot, a great time to be a maintainer or a controller, any of the positions in that value chain. And then there are the new technologies. And I know that we've been hearing about them for a really long time. But I can tell you, they are here, and they are arriving fast, it's going to be one of those things where it seems like it takes forever and all of a sudden, it happens really quickly. We're at that point, with drones, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Advanced Air Mobility. Space Launch is happening multiple times a week, more space launches in a week than you had in a year, if you go back a decade. And supersonic balloons. There's just no limit to where we're going. So, it's a terrific time to be in this industry.  

The second observation, which I think both Andy and Rick have touched on, is the challenges that we face. All of these challenges really touch on training, which is why this work is so important. Its challenges in finding the employees. And it's the challenges that happened with what I would just refer to as a COVID hangover, if you will; a loss of senior experience, that natural transfer of knowledge that happened in the workplace - in ways that maybe we didn't fully understand - isn't happening anymore.  

And that knowledge gap, I think explains a lot of what's going on in the industry right now. We're also dealing with demographic shifts; I was tempted to stay for this exercise on how to train a Gen Z that could be useful for me as well for my personal life. But, you know, we're not looking at a generation that's going to spend 30 years at an airline or 30 years at FAA. It's a different dynamic.  

So, training really explains a lot of the events that we're dealing with, and I think will be a feature throughout this conference. At manufacturers, that showed up as having employees who didn't fully understand what they were doing and didn't have enough training to build the aircraft at an accelerated rate they were expected to build. At the airlines, we're seeing a number of maintenance issues. And I say maintenance because when an aircraft is 20 years old - or 30 years old - it's a maintenance issue if something goes wrong, whether it's a wheel falling off or a panel falling off. And then a lot of near misses, particularly last year, a lot of focus on near misses, failures of communication between pilots and controllers. At FAA, we're going after all of these issues pretty aggressively. We're ensuring that companies aren't growing faster than they're capable, faster than their employees and their training will allow, whether that's with a manufacturer or with airlines.  

We are requiring and expecting more training, and more supervision, and more quality control. I have seen companies that fully grasp this issue and have changed the way they hire and the way they train. They've changed the amount of training they do. And they changed their expectations from their new employees. And I have seen companies that seem to be oblivious to this. So that is really our challenge to make sure that this is understood and mitigated as a risk.  

And third observation will be that safety really is a team sport. And I've had that driven home, really the last six months, in a number of ways. It's an ecosystem. And every player in that ecosystem has to do their part. That's how we achieved that amazing safety record. And that's what we need to do to keep that amazing safety record.  

At FAA, we are that regulator, but we also are in the unusual position of being an operator. We're part of that ecosystem on the operation side with an air traffic control system that operates 24/7.  

Since joining six months ago, hiring more controllers has been a major focus. But I will say that it takes a long time to make a controller. It is a very challenging and important position, and it can take two, three years to make a controller. We've seen significant growth in demand and capacity on the airline side; we can't keep up to that growth when it takes that long to make new controllers, so we've been very aggressive in exceeding the targets and really increasing those targets pretty dramatically.  

We've had an effort with CTI schools that will take effect this year where we can now take graduates right from the CTI schools and hire them in facilities. So that'll be a big change, but we won't start to see the results of that until 2025.  

We also took a very close and serious look at fatigue. My first few months visiting half a dozen facilities, it is the one theme that I encountered at every facility, folks had been working six days a week, sometimes for years, and working pretty challenging shifts, week in and week out with one midnight shift and the rest various day shifts. So, we engaged the really the three most prominent sleep experts in the country, one at NASA, one at Harvard Medical School, and a former NTSB member. And they made some recommendations, and we're going to be working to implement those recommendations.  

We believe we can do that without much disruption to the system. But we also believe it has to happen, we need to have rested voices on both sides of that microphone. So, we're going to make sure that that happens. We've had to limit capacity in some markets on the Northeast Corridor. We're down 10%, just because we can't handle the traffic. That is our relief valve. If we can't accommodate the traffic, we have to reduce capacity and not compromise safety.  

So, the good news is we have a lot of very strong tools to keep the system safe. And again, the events of the last six months have allowed me to really see how these tools operate in real time. And I would put on the top of that list - data. We have a lot of data.  

We pride ourselves as an industry that we don't wait for accidents to happen, we look at the data, and we look for risks and we mitigate those risks. I can tell you - we could be a lot better at that. And that's going to be a focus going forward. We could have more data, we could have it in real time, and we could have better tools. So that's going to be a focus. We have an opportunity to do a lot better here. And this is an area where I think we can all contribute. You all have various access to various data in different forms, we need to make sure that's available, that it's being used for the proper purposes, not for punitive purposes, and it allows us to identify risks in the system. The other tool, obviously, is SMS.  

And we are expanding requirements around SMS. This is really the secret sauce for identifying and mitigating risks. And I'll use an example from shortly after the January 5th event with the Alaska Airlines Flight. Those doors were on a model of the MAX, they were also on a previous version of the 737. And those 737s had over 11 million hours on them. So, we were pretty comfortable that those doors were manufactured properly. But, after a couple of days, I started having this nagging concern about whether we should look at those doors. And by the time we had a conversation about that at FAA, we found out that two of the carriers involved had their own SMS identify that as a risk and had already started inspecting those doors. That's how the system should work. We didn't have to put out an AD, we didn't have to put out an order. The one that wasn't inspecting the doors got a phone call, and they started inspecting the doors.  

But that's really how the system needs to work. Look, look at the data, identify the risks and say, “what actions do we need to make sure we mitigate that risk?” So, I think the lesson around that is SMSs are here to stay. They're expanding. And we have an opportunity to make sure that they're talking to each other a little bit more and connecting the dots between the players in the system.  

And then finally, I would say international cooperation is a key tool that we want to leverage as well. And I mentioned I was really happy to see so many representatives from other countries here today. I'm looking forward to it working closely with my counterparts in a variety of countries. There's a new head at EASA, someone I happen to know from my previous tenure, very excited about him joining. And we're going to look at ways that we can work on data and SMS and safety systems together to to make sure we're achieving the result we all want, which is a much safer system. So that's something in the pipeline as well.  

So, with that, I'll just close by stating the obvious, which is you are all key parts of the of this ecosystem, the safety ecosystem, and I really appreciate you being here because I know you're taking it very seriously. And looking forward to being able to work with you together on keeping that system as safe as it's been for so long. Thank you very much.