Before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation: Implementation of Aviation Safety Reform

Administrator Stephen M. Dickson (August 12, 2019 - March 31, 2022)

Oral Testimony

Good morning Chair Cantwell, Ranking Member Wicker, and Members of the committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the FAA’s approach to aviation safety oversight and our efforts to strengthen the aircraft certification process. Safety is a journey, not a destination. We are constantly evolving as a regulator and an air navigation services provider to deliver the safest and most efficient aerospace system in the world. That’s our mission, and our entire workforce of nearly 45,000 federal employees is singularly focused on achieving that mission.

As the head of the FAA, safety is my North Star. One of the first things I did as FAA Administrator was make it clear that we are the regulator, and that included resetting our relationship with Boeing. I said we would continue to exert a high level of scrutiny across the board, and we continue exert that scrutiny today. I’ve made it clear internally that we always do the right thing when it comes to safety—and that I have the workforce’s back on that. We’re also asking ourselves the hard questions, and we’re asking them of those we regulate. When it comes to safety, we do not accept the status quo. 

This is why we embrace reform, and we are focused across the agency on continuous improvement. I will discuss a number of initiatives that we have underway and the work we have completed to address this goal and to implement the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act. 

But first, let me say to the families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes, that the FAA is committed to applying the lessons learned from these tragedies so that the aviation system here—and around the world—continues to improve.  I want this Committee to know that the FAA appreciates—and respects—the input and direction from Congress, and that we remain fully committed to executing this legislation to make near—and long term—safety improvements that benefit the global aviation system.

The Act has more than 100 specific requirements that we are implementing to make aircraft certification and safety oversight more holistic, systematic, transparent, and effective. I can say with confidence that we are doing more for certification oversight, and we are doing it more systematically, since this time last year. 

For one, we are delegating fewer responsibilities to manufacturers and demanding more transparency from them. At the same time, we are making use of their technical expertise as we prioritize our safety oversight functions.  

The FAA is also revising guidance and criteria used for determining significant modifications to an aircraft so that proposed changes are evaluated from a whole aircraft system perspective and not just a single part. 

We are promoting the use of safety management systems, or SMS, internally and externally. With SMS, an organization actively searches for and identifies safety issues, and then addresses the root cause. From my own experience, I know that SMS works, but only if there is buy-in from everyone in the organization, from the C-Suite down to the person pushing the broom on the shop floor, At the FAA, that means when anyone—at any level—flags an issue, I’ve got their back. No questions asked. 

Because SMS works, we have not let the rulemaking process hinder manufacturers from using it now. Currently, four design and manufacturing organizations, including Boeing, have voluntarily adopted SMS, with six others in progress. 

Human factors continues to be an important part of our work in evaluating aircraft and aircraft systems. We've expanded our evaluation of manufacturers’ assumptions about human factors that equipment manufacturers make when performing system safety assessments, including pilot response times. The FAA has initiated rulemaking to update regulations and guidance for conducting system safety assessments on transport category airplanes. And we've increased our research on automation, including potential over-reliance on automated systems and loss of basic piloting skills. To support this increased emphasis on human factors, we've hired 14 new Human Factors Specialists in our Aircraft Certification and Flight Standards organizations.

We are actively expanding our portfolio of data collection and analytics tools so we can more effectively share safety data within the FAA and among industry stakeholders and international partners. Data is key to the early identification of potential hazards and safety problems. Per the Act, we have a new contract with the Transportation Research Board that will help us discover emerging safety trends in aviation. 

Since aviation is a global system, the FAA is also working closely with the International Civil Aviation Organization and other international stakeholders to influence and adjust the maintenance and pilot training requirements for U.S. products operating under other civil aviation authorities. 

Chair Cantwell, Ranking Member Wicker, and members of the committee, as you can see, the FAA is fully committed to a thorough and complete implementation of the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act. We approach all of this work with humility and never take safety for granted. However, we are not just doing this work because you have directed us to do it; we are doing it, because it is the right thing to do for aviation safety—it is our mission. This is what the public expects and it is the standard we have set for ourselves. The  FAA will accept nothing less.

Thank you again for your support and direction. I am happy to answer your questions.