“Focus and Vision: Moving Forward”

J. Randolph Babbitt, Washington, D.C. on January 26, 2010 to the Aero Club

Thank you, and good afternoon. There’s a saying out there that we’ve all heard — The more things change, the more things stay the same — and I used to think that made a lot of sense. I’ve been in this business for a while, and takeoffs and landings are still the bread and butter thing they’ve always been.

Since becoming Administrator, though, I see this business quite a bit differently. Things really are changing, but no, things really are not the same.

If you’ve got a cell phone, an iPhone or a Blackberry, hold it up for a moment. Look around. Things are not the same after all. Ten years ago, who was thinking that we’d all have one of these Captain Kirk communicators? But we do.

The same type of scenario is rippling its way through aviation and through the FAA. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Houston as ADS-B was coming on line. Talk about change — there’s little doubt in my mind that the future of aviation and innovation is alive and well — and making a difference in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve launched initial operations for satellite surveillance in an area that’s of critical importance to this nation. And the real beauty of this step — ADS-B increases safety and efficiency in one fell swoop.

From where I stand, ADS-B is a huge change — a technological leap on the same order of magnitude as radar itself — maybe bigger. The Gulf is known for a lack of weather reporting, position reporting and communications. ADS-B can close that chapter for good.

As a pilot, I view ADS-B the same way we think about all the cell phones that you held in the air a minute ago. ADS-B is going to change the way we fly. Write that one down. All of us run back to the house when we forget our cell. There’s going to come a time very soon when ADS-B will be viewed the same way. Equipage is up to the operator, but just like having a cell in your hand, the benefits of having the technology far outweigh the costs. Just ask UPS. They’re fully equipped with ADS-B out . They’ve been able to validate the capability to reduce noise by one third and save fuel and miles along the way. In the Gulf, helicopter operators previously could only get IFR service with an inefficient antiquated grid system. Now, with ADS-B, radar-like five mile separation services and direct routings can be realized. The carriers at high altitude get similar benefits. The math’s not complicated — the business case is obvious.

Developing new technology and leveraging it to benefit safety and the environment are just a part of the shared vision we are all working towards at 800 Independence. We must accomplish our mission for moving aircraft even more safely and efficiently. We need to reach that next level of safety. But in order for the FAA to set the standard, we’ve got to enter what I’ll call the “NextGen Age” at each and every level of the organization. I want us to be the best in the world. I want other nations, companies and operators to start from, “How does the FAA do it?’ — and then follow suit. Not because we’re the biggest, or because we have the biggest stick, but instead I want them to follow us because it makes sense to do so.

With respect to change, I want more than just a NextGen for navigation. I want a NextGen for safety, which requires accountability and transparency. The rules need to be applied consistently and fairly all across the board, all across the country. The strike zone can’t change with the time zone. But if it does, we shouldn’t be surprised when operators throw up their hands and say, “Exactly which rulebook do you want us to follow?”

I’m also pushing for another kind of NextGen — a new way of thinking about employee relations and labor relations. This is a great opportunity for us to move forward as an agency. I understand the issues — I’ve been on both sides of the table. It’s a time for change. We must get union discord behind us. We need to energize employees with a forward-looking focus. Employees are important, and when you lose sight of that, you can’t be surprised if mission focus starts to slip.

When we signed the new controller agreement, I made it clear to managers and union members alike:  It’s important to have you with us as we move forward to tackle the truly difficult problems facing this agency. This is a new chapter for all of us — we are looking forward.. And this is not just about one FAA union —  improving employee engagement across the board is one of my top priorities for 2010 — for employees who are members of unions and those who are not.

That’s my vision for the agency. My focus is going to be on something that’s never going to change — safety. One of the reasons I’m so positive about ADS-B is that it gives efficiency and safety in one package. We’re ditching World War II-radar and ground-based procedures and giving pilots and controllers a situational awareness that they haven’t had before, with accuracy we could only imagine.

Safety starts with professionalism. As a member of the aviation community, your approach to safety can’t be anything but serious. Professionalism and accountability aren’t optional. We have checklists because we know from experience that without them, the human mind will round off the edges of a procedure that’s meant to be razor sharp. We know that in our every day lives as well. A full stop at a stop sign doesn’t mean you can roll through if nobody ever comes that way. Runway safety comes to mind. Regardless of the technology — the moving map displays, the auditory cockpit warnings, the ASDE in the tower — it’s still incumbent on the flight crew to stay heads up. Technology is providing a boost for runway safety — a big boost — but it doesn’t replace the need for vigilance. And there is no machine that can do that. Vigilance comes from responsibility, and responsibility comes from professionalism.

As I discuss these issues, I’m not just talking to pilots, but also to controllers, technicians, flight crew members, maintenance teams and my co-workers at the FAA. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  if your paycheck gets touched by an airplane, I’m talking to you. Professionalism has got to be stressed at every level and in every occupation. Safety is a shared responsibility, and I expect everyone in the chain to meet that responsibility and to raise a hand when a problem is spotted.

We are close to the one year anniversary of the Colgan Air 3407 crash in Buffalo. Although I wasn’t FAA Administrator at the time, that accident was very emotional for me. It raised issues like one level of safety and pilot fatigue — issues that I have spent my career working on.

I’m not the first Administrator to say safety is the core of the FAA. The flying public needs to have confidence that no matter what size airplane they board, the pilots have the right qualifications, are trained for the mission, are fit for duty — and that they’re flying an aircraft that’s been properly maintained and is ready to go. This is our mission, our focus and we will keep raising the bar for safety — there simply is no alternative.

In June, Secretary LaHood and I issued a Call to Action on Airline Safety and Pilot Training. We held 12 regional safety forums. We pulled together the FAA, air carriers and labor organizations to drill down on where we needed to make changes. As a result of these efforts we are expecting to publish this spring a much needed proposal for a Flight Time and Duty Time rule.

We know we need to reexamine pilot qualifications to make sure commercial pilots who carry passengers have the appropriate operational experience — they need to be trained for the mission they are flying. There are proposals that raise the number of required hours and we need to look at that possibility. But we must have qualification and training requirements that elevate the importance of mission appropriate experience.

Professionalism was a key theme in our Call to Action, and I’m pleased to say all the pilot employee organizations have committed to helping us develop guidelines on cockpit discipline and pilot professionalism. We’ll be meeting next month to refine our work.

As I look ahead to what comes next for the FAA, one thing I am keenly aware of is a need for the agency to have more of a mission focus, at every level. Part of that mission is making sure we are equipped to take aviation into the future. That we can develop technology that right now might seem out of reach.

I touched on ADS-B going live in the Gulf of Mexico and Louisville. The NextGen milestones for this year don’t end there. ADS-B goes live in Philadelphia next month, Alaska in the spring. From there, we’re full speed ahead on nationwide operations. Later this year, we’re going to be turning on full-sharing of surface data for ASDE-X. That was a key recommendation from RTCA. It’s going to make a positive impact on our efforts to reduce delays.

We all need to commit to the mission of making sure we are ready for this new generation of technology and beyond. We talk a lot about best equipped, best served. But it’s the truth. I know this technology is not inexpensive. Those however that are equipping early are seeing the benefits.

We are continuing to work with Congress to find ways to expedite funding for NextGen. The true benefits of this NextGen system will be realized as more and more aircraft become equipped.

As we push toward the future, though, we have to remember one very important factor:  us. I think we need to, as a group, not lose sight of the impact of removing the human, taking us out of the process. I’ve seen too many examples in the FAA and industry that point very clearly to what I think is our next biggest hurdle. We must make sure that equipment does not supplant human intelligence. The Minneapolis overflight comes to mind — where the aircraft did what it was designed to do — remain on course. It’s easy to get complacent, maybe a bit too comfortable, when the plane’s flying itself. I’ve met inspectors who are pushing for more time touching an airplane. We need to ensure we’ve found the balance between “data entry” and time in the field. I want to be absolutely clear that the machine can’t replace the human in the loop. When we lean too far that way, I think we’ll regret it.

Many of you here have been following the FAA for a long time. So it will come as no surprise for you to learn that part of my present and future mission as Administrator is trying to breakdown the stovepipes at the agency. I’m sharing this mission with my entire management team.

ADS-B in the Gulf and Louisville were wonderful examples of what can happen when the FAA works across organizational lines to get a job done. I cannot and will not accept anyone who says that going it alone is the way to go. Not when you have the collective brain power of over 46 thousand people at your disposal. We are holders of the public trust for safety, and without a doubt, we meet that 24/7. But I expect fully that we can find efficiencies and become a more cohesive team providing better service to the public and each other.

Aviation is changing all around us, and the FAA is changing along with it. We have to open our minds to new and innovative ways of keeping our aviation system on the leading edge — whether it’s technology, or creative funding mechanisms. We’re getting high marks for safety, but we will not stop there.

So let me share with you what my vision of a flight in 2020 would be like. Our clearance is delivered and accepted with Data Link. The radio will only be used for emergencies. We’ll taxi out and takeoff without touching the brakes with no chance of a runway incursion we’ll fly the most efficient course for departure and enroute at our most efficient altitude. Complete high fidelity weather information will be will be available to the pilots and controllers for the full projected route and avoided using predictive weather tools. We will descend and reach our destination using a continuous descent approach. Our airports and airways will be funded with a transparent blend of lower taxes and fees not subject to variations of the economy and supplemented with savings in time, fuel and carbon emissions. We’ll deplane through multiple jet bridges, move through the terminal on high speed vehicles and moving sidewalks, only to find out our bags didn’t make it.