“Safety is on My Plate”

Remarks prepared for J. Randolph Babbitt to the Regional Airline Association on November 10th.

Washington D.C. – Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me, Roger [Cohen]. You’ve asked me to share what’s on my plate or what’s on my mind, and today, there’s no doubt that the answer to both of those questions is one and the same.

Safety. More specifically, what you are doing with the call to action I made shortly after taking office. There’s a tendency when a government group comes out with a program or a policy to believe that somehow it will last only until the spotlights dim. Memories are short, even when we’re talking about accidents like Buffalo or Lexington.

But I need to be unequivocal about this:  the call to action was intended specifically to serve as marching orders for safety from here on out. The call to action was not in response to headlines. It was not a knee-jerk reaction to activity on the Hill. I put the call to action in place as someone who’s flown in and around this system for the better part of 14,000 hours over the better part of 40 years.

The call to action was intended as a clear, unambiguous signal that the status quo for safety is insufficient. As safe as we are, as safe as the trend lines show us to be, we need to do more. We could spend time challenging the characterization of some recent accidents as having involved “regional carriers.” Or it could be argued that some were non-revenue flights. We also can debate the details and the meaning of regional accident rates in recent years.

But I think those conversations badly miss the point. If we’re candid with ourselves, we’d agree that the recent past has not been good enough, and it has highlighted more than a few serious problems that everyone in aviation needs to address.

The Call to Action identified more than a few issues that are fundamental to aviation safety:  The need to maintain professionalism in the cockpit; flight monitoring; crew fatigue; the importance of establishing and following good standard operating procedures; compensation practices and flight crew experience; maintenance practices; and a host of training issues, such as the use of auto-pilots, stall recognition and recovery, unstable approaches, operating in crosswinds, and more.

We can argue about what’s on that list, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. The bottom line is two million passengers a day that board aircraft have every right to expect a safe flight in a safe, well maintained aircraft flown by a well rested and well trained professional crew. Make no mistake:  the call to action was not a wake-up call issued solely to pilots. If your paycheck is tied to an airplane, the call to action is a wake-up call to you. The call to action was a call for professionalism.

Many organizations stepped right up. They had no problem sending me a letter indicating that they were moving forward with the call to action, and if that called for them to do even more than they already were, fine. Regrettably, it was disappointing to see others drag their feet, as if somehow the call to action would get lost in the sea of other things we all pay attention to. That’s just not going to happen.

Our system is not built to accommodate people who take short cuts with safety. Everyone must play with the same goal in mind:  it’s safe, or it doesn’t fly.

Let me say here and now that whether you have 100 aircraft or just one, a hundred employees or just one, a hundred clients or just one, each and every piece of equipment must be in accordance with the regulations.

Safety is not, nor should it ever be, a slogan. It’s got to be part of the culture — your culture — and if it’s not, there’s no question in my mind that the safety trends will begin to level out, and then they’ll dip. And when they dip, accidents happen and lives are lost.

We can’t afford that.

Safety needs to be foremost in our minds at all times, not once a month or even just once a day. The call to action is not a one-time effort. It should be viewed as the beginning of a continuous journey toward increased safety and professionalism. Especially in light of accidents like Colgan and the helicopter collision on the Hudson, we need to be at the top of our safety game. Safety needs to be part of our decision making process for every flight and for every task.

I’m looking for your cooperation in a number of areas.

First and foremost, I urge all RAA members to participate in the voluntary safety information programs. I’m talking about FOQA and ASAP. If you’re unfamiliar with these acronyms, that’s a sign that your organization isn’t as safe as it could be — as it should be. If I were asking you to invest in a business and gave you only three data points, you wouldn’t be able to make a decision. Relying on forensics for aviation safety puts us in that same spot. We have too few accidents to provide us with forensic information. But when you self-disclose, that provides a wealth of data, a real gold mine. With the very few data points that we have from accidents, voluntary safety reporting strengthens our knowledge of safety problems and our ability to correct them.

When you look at ASIAS — the aviation safety information analysis and sharing system — you’re looking at the cutting edge of safety. That’s the thing that will allow us to spot precursors beforethere’s a crash.

I also urge you to step up to the plate and put in place safety enhancements developed by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team. The CAST team has developed many safety enhancements based on data analysis. There is a wealth of safety solutions to help all operators.

I encourage implementation of safety enhancements that deal with TAWS, icing, TCAS policies and procedures, and advisory circular 120-16E, which deals with maintenance.

I’d like to mention safety enhancement 175 specifically, which also deals with maintenance policies, procedures and risks. This is what SE 175 says:  "To prevent loss of pitot static system flight data, airlines/maintenance should provide visible tagging any time the pitot static system … pitot tubes and static ports … are covered during maintenance or servicing, for example, washing. In addition, preflight walk-around procedures should include specific verification that pitot static ports are uncovered."

Regarding 175, we’ve received information from ATA, RAA and NACA. One-third of RAA carriers and almost two-thirds of NACA carriers have not adopted these. That’s unacceptable. I would encourage each of you to check and see if this enhancement has been implemented. If not, I’d ask you to push.

I’d also like to push for something I cannot regulate — professionalism. The accidents we’ve seen of late make it clear that a lack of professionalism can kill.

As I’ve said on a number of occasions, we can’t regulate professionalism. Our business is highly technical, highly skilled. Natural ability isn’t good enough. We need to conduct ourselves in a way that accelerates personal growth. When we do, that growth will spread by example. Professionalism is doing the right thing when no one is looking. What we all know by now in this stage of our careers is that someone’s always looking. The younger folks pay attention to the people who’ve been around the block. They watch. They listen. They learn. Professionalism is what makes sure that they’re watching, listening and learning the right lessons. Two million passengers depend on that professionalism every day, and they have a right to do so. They’re counting on us on knowing the right thing, and they’re counting on us to do it.

This is making the case for mentoring. I can’t make you be a mentor. We know that the best lessons of all usually come from someone who’s been there before. He or she takes the time to tell us why inspecting with our own two eyes is never a bad thing. When you think about major catastrophes like ValuJet or Tenerife, there’s a list of red flags where someone didn’t react appropriately. In any of these cases, professionalism and mentoring probably would have made a difference. It does add up.

From a business standpoint, despite the turmoil of the past year, regional carriers continue to play a vital role in the nation’s air transportation industry. Regionals carry about one-fourth of all domestic passengers on U.S. airlines. And just as is the case with the rest of the airline industry, traffic on regional carriers fell in 2009, with passengers down about 3 percent and RPMs down 4 percent for the 12 months ended September 2009. In the near term, we believe that recovery will be slow for the airline industry, with growth limited until the economic recovery is firmly in place. However, in this kind of an environment, opportunities exist for regional carriers to grow, as mainline partners continue to adjust their business plans and realign their networks. It’s clear that in a rapidly changing environment, we have all the more reason to keep our eye on the safety ball.

That’s how I see it. You asked me what’s on my plate, and I answered safety. What I’d like to see is that when asked the same question, your answer is the same. Thank you.