Safety Stand Down “Tiger”

J. Randolph Babbitt, Wichita, KS
September 29, 2009

Good morning, and thank you, James [Hoblyn], for inviting me.

It’s a good day to talk about aviation. But it’s an even better day to talk about Tiger Woods. He’s 33 years old. He’s been PGA Player of the Year nine times. He’s won 71 PGA events. He’s won 14 majors. Nicklaus has 18. So what’s the big deal? Tiger has a multi-year contract with Nike that’s now into triple digit millions. When 60 Minutes went to talk to him, well, that was Tiger’s yacht blocking the sun in the background. Career earnings from tournaments to date:  $82,000,000. To be fair, I’m told that $82,000,000 doesn’t go as far as it used to.

Somebody once asked Tiger about his best year. He knew the answer right away. He said, “When I was 11, I won 23 tournaments. The prettiest girl in the class liked me. And we had recess twice a day.” Maybe, just maybe, Tiger’s had a few good years since fifth grade.

But there’s another story that comes to mind, and that is after a major Tiger won by 12 strokes, leaving everyone in the dust, the very next morning at 7, Tiger was out on the green working on his short game. He said at the time, “There’s just some things about my putting that weren’t quite right.” He’s worth millions. No one can touch him. He’s rewriting the record books. And maybe, next to Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, he’s the most recognizable male athlete in the world. Maybe in the history of the world.

So what drives a guy who’s got it all to practice like he’s in last place and unsure if he’s going to make the cut?

In a word, professionalism. That professionalism is what leads him to practice. It’s what makes him work out in a sport where there are a lot of guys looking more like John Daly than there should be. It’s why he has a swing coach, a personal trainer, a chef, and who knows how many consultants.

But I can tell you this much:  even if he has a thousand consultants, each of them standing there holding one club a piece, they aren’t the reason he’s so good.

It’s professionalism, pure and simple. Tiger focuses on human factors, and he takes responsibility for his actions. Tiger Woods holds himself to a standard that isn’t measured in tournament victories. When he loses, he’s out there hitting a thousand balls the next day. Even when he wins, he’s out there just the same.

The standard he uses is internal, right here. He follows the rules, but he doesn’t use the rules as his ceiling. He’s above and beyond that — and that’s why the distance between Tiger and second place is quite a hike.

We’re in a business that demands the same type of rigor. We’re like surgeons. Ninety-nine out of a hundred isn’t good enough. Nine hundred ninety-nine out of a thousand isn’t good enough.

People — passengers — expect more. And the system is so ridiculously safe that we deliver it routinely. Seventy thousand flights a day. More than 2 million people a day.

So, how about you? Are you reporting for duty rested and prepared? Are you continuously refreshing your knowledge? Are you rigorously following checklists and procedures? Do you discipline yourself to stay at least 10 miles ahead of the aircraft? Do you use quiet moments to make productive use of the moment — something such as briefing, rechecking the FMS, or plan? Do you brief thoroughly and communicate clearly to ATC and your crew, including flight attendants?

Do you fly with precision?

Do you push to a higher standard of professional flying? In that context, you should read “professional” and “disciplined” as meaning one in the same thing.

Here’s another thought:  Do you expect the same from other pilots? When the moment strikes, are you careful not to let a teaching/mentoring situation slip by without addressing it?

Do you honestly provide feedback to your flying partner? Do you honestly provide feedback to your flying partner about your own performance?

Do you strive to look and act professional? Tiger’s a good parallel there. He wears a simple red polo with a tiny swoosh, and the legion of people trying to dress just like Tiger is, well, legion. You might see Tiger angry when he lips out a gimme, but generally, he’s known for ice water in his veins at crunch time.

This is the point where we’ve got to be completely candid with each other. As aviation professionals, whether you’re a pilot or not, you’ve got to be running through this list of questions, or a list just like it, every day. I know that when I get in the left seat, or the right seat, I recognize right away that the fundamentals come first. That’s after 14,000 hours. I’ve flown a lot of airplanes — from Cessna 140’s to the 747s and the 777  I have flown as a line pilot the Airbus A-300, the 727, the DC-9  and I started my career at Eastern on the  Lockheed Electra. And no, Orville and Wilbur did not use the Electra at Kitty Hawk.

As a pilot, I’m just like you:  I’ve flown everything I could get my hands on. When I came to the FAA as the administrator, I learned much to my good fortune that the agency has a Citation and a Gulfstream. While they don’t compare to the Lockheed Electra, they’ll just have to do.

So, like you, I’ve been around the block. Because of that experience, I was especially pleased to put together a rulemaking committee on flight, rest and duty. We’ve been struggling with a one-size-fits-all rule for 40 years, and the science behind it is probably older than that.

Tell me, which pilot deals with more fatigue, the one who does Detroit to Narita at night, with rest opportunities and bunks, or the pilot who has eight takeoffs and landings in one duty period and the weather never gets better than 400 and 1 — and all without leaving the East Coast?

Unfortunately, we’ve had a couple accidents recently, but that has brought some much needed scrutiny on this issue. When you’re a little tired, and you skip the fundamentals, you have the accident in Lexington, where the compass, the signage, the NOTAM and a big white X on a runway aren’t enough of a deterrent. You’re tired, you’re not thinking the way you should, and full power without enough runway is in your immediate future.

Fatigue’s been eating our lunch for a long, long time. The focus that’s come about as of late is a good thing. As this shakes out, we’ll see that it’s about more than just fatigue — it’s science, risk management, and international standards.

Anyone who flies knows that this issue’s always looking over our shoulder. A change to the rules is long overdue. Despite the best efforts of many, many professionals, some of whom I’ll bet are in this room, we’ve not been able to reach consensus on proposals floated since the mid-1990s. This is why I’ve asked that this be accelerated. I think the planets are finally aligning on this — we’ve got the opportunity and the political will coming together at just the right time. Bottom line here is that we need something that makes sense for labor and the carriers.

Likewise, it’s time for the experienced professionals among us to redouble their mentoring efforts. Pull up alongside the newcomers and start giving advice, whether it’s asked for or not.

In many ways, this is what spurred the call to action I made in June. Since then, we’ve visited 12 cities and the message was the same each time:  Aviation needs to step up professionalism. I wanted the airlines and their chief pilots to spread the word on best practices. I think that of all the things we do, of all the steps we take, that taking the time to share wisdom is what’s going to give us the biggest payoff. There are many, many pilots flying very successfully in the system. They avoid mistakes because they always look at the big picture while they’re looking at the small screen.

Right here is a good time for me to make a pitch for SMS, safety management systems. I think that we need to see greater use of the tools at hand, like safety management systems, across the board. When you have as few accidents as we do, it’s difficult to spot a trend with a slope that has only three data points on it. SMS is the answer there. We are working on SMS for Part 121, 135, and 145.

When people know that they can raise their hand — “There’s a problem here” — that is when we’re going to make the big leaps forward in safety. If you have a situation where someone is punished for raising a flag, all you’ve done is encourage silence. When sweeping issues under the rug becomes the status quo, safety becomes a slogan instead of a lifestyle.

This is a time of economic duress, and every flight department in this room is feeling it. During a time like this — especially during a time like this — it’s crucial that people speak up. No one sets out thinking, “I’m going to cause an accident.” Instead, it’s “Oh, I know all the items on the checklist, we don’t need to read it.” When you have an entire workforce skipping a step here and there, bad things will happen. And when they do, no one should be surprised.

This is not intended to be an indictment. My words are a reminder that we must step up. When it comes to safety, the status quo is never acceptable. We went 29 months without a major fatal passenger accident. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be in the middle of one of the streaks all the time.

So let me close here by revisiting our parallels  It turns out that if you’re the greatest golfer of all time — or if you’re an aviation professional — you’ve got to do the right thing even when no one else is looking — especially when no one else is looking. And if we do that — all of us doing the right thing, at the right time, all the time — we will have a winning safety streak that Tiger would envy. Thanks for inviting me.