The Human in the Loop

J. Randolph Babbitt, Washington, D.C.
December 3, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery at the International Runway Safety Forum

Good morning, and thank you. I’d like to offer a special note of appreciation to Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari for being with us today. His presence here is a very clear and direct signal that the Obama Administration is focused on aviation, and more importantly, on aviation safety. When the White House places a priority on your programs, it’s a good place to be. There’s equal focus from the Department, in Secretary LaHood and Deputy Secretary Porcari.

I’d have to say that the subject of our attention, the runway, is a very good place to be. As a pilot for many years and many hours, and now as a regulator who’s seeing it from the other side of the business, I will stack American runways against any other spot in the system. When it comes to safety, efficiency and durability, our runways are a rock-solid foundation. Any industry professional will tell you that the track record for the safety of U.S. aviation hinges on the health of our runways.

That’s always been a true statement. But now with the advancements that are coming on line day after day, it has become an axiom for aviation. The long and the short of it is that American runways make this system fly. In golf, putting is half of the game. And in flying, runways are half of the game.

One of main reasons they’re so safe is because we have hardware that addresses and resolves conflicts. We have 23 ASDE-X systems in place and operational, eventually going to 35 airports. We’re using electronic flight bags and moving map displays. And I know our international partners are using this same technology and I’m glad to see them here.

I can tell you from experience that when you look out at an airfield, at night, in the rain, it’s like being nose-to-nose with a Christmas tree. Finding the taxiway or the intersection, or being aware of the carts, it’s not an easy thing. It requires a hundred percent of your focus.

I had the chance to fly a Triple-7 simulator just a couple days ago. When I landed, I turned to the check pilot and asked — as you’re supposed to — about the wing-span. He said, “Think about it like flying a football field. The wing tips are hanging over the benches.”

It reminded me, one more time, just how critical situational awareness is and just how many things come into play — like the size of the aircraft itself.

That’s where the technology comes in. The technology that we’re using is a tremendous boost to the pilot’s situational awareness. When you put equipment and technology in place that keep your head up, that’s going to pay big dividends right away. I’d argue that some of the advances we’re making on the airport surface are having the same kind of impact that smoke detectors do in the household.

And as you look at the numbers from the past year — 12 A&B incursions out of more than 50 million operations, well, that’s a staggering achievement. Only two of the serious incursions involved commercial carriers. The good news here is that all of our pilots — private and commercial and in-between, as well as our air traffic controllers, inspectors, vehicle operators and other safety personnel — are really a cut above. While one incursion is one too many, the numbers prove we’ve made a dramatic improvement. We’ve revamped our on-line courses. We’ve produced public service spots. And we mailed a half-million runway safety DVDs and brochures to pilots.

It’s been a tremendous joint effort across all parts of the FAA and the aviation industry. It worked.

But in the broader context, I think that what all of this shows us is that if we want to step up to the next level, we’ve got to shift away from the forensic investigation of what happened and instead start chipping away at the precursors. When the numerator is 12 and the denominator is 50 million, frankly, there’s no other way we can get there. I won’t go as far as calling these rare events, but we’ve picked off all the low-hanging fruit there is to pick.

My instincts tell me that the place all of this will head is a tricky area — human factors. Lexington has got to be Exhibit A. When you’re a little tired, and you skip the fundamentals, where the compass, the signage, the NOTAM and a big white X on a runway aren’t enough of a deterrent. You’re not thinking the way you should, the full power without enough runway is in your immediate future.

I heard another example, considerably less well known. Mechanics flipped a circuit breaker to work on the fuel pump. They didn’t use a placard to indicate that they’d done so. When the crew came on board, a flight bag placed on the floor covered the circuit board. So you can see where this might go, but thankfully, nothing bad happened.

The good that happened came in the form of the self-reporting system. The crew raised their hand, reported what happened, and because it’s a non-punitive environment, we got a data point that probably saved a lot of lives. I’d hazard a guess that not too many of us think about the location of our flight bags, but here’s a case where clearly, we need to from this point forward.

Another point for us to consider is the check ride. Back when you were dating, you always had your best foot forward. Check rides can be the same way. You’re never more focused than those moments where an inspector or a colleague is holding a clipboard with a form that has your name at the top. We’ve got to make sure that the top-flight performance isn’t reserved only for the check ride.

The human factor is going to loom large in the future. Consider what happens when you’re in your car and the “check engine” light comes on. If we’re candid with ourselves, here’s the mental checklist we run through:  Oh, so that’s where the check engine light is. When was the last time that came on? Are any other lights on? I should have taken time to read the owner’s manual. Does this car have an owner’s manual? This is going to cost me $300 to watch the mechanic tap the sensor with a pencil to turn the light off. And then there’s:  that light never means anything. I’m going to ignore it.

Or maybe you don’t even see the light because you still have a piece of duct tape over it.

We all smile at that litany, but notice there that even though maybe only some of those questions apply, you nevertheless continued to operate the vehicle. You were spending time trouble-shooting the warning system instead of keeping your situational awareness about you — while you were moving along at 50 or 60 or 70 — on the highway.

Step away from your car and think about what happens in a complex piece of equipment like the modern cockpit. Truth be told, we need to get pilots to stop trouble-shooting warning systems and make sure they continue to fly the aircraft. I’m not predicting doom and gloom:  I’m merely pointing out the obvious. Anything that distracts you from job number one — the safe operation of the aircraft — has the potential to end in tragedy.

And preventing that is not going to be easy. Let’s get back to the airport surface. We can’t design a system that’s based solely on runway status lights. OK, so what if you don’t see the safety lights? Do you stop? Technology can help, but it’s not going to replace the need for the training that’s taking place very successfully with our partners at places like AOPA, NBAA, EAA and ALPA. Let me remind you that only two of the 12 A&B incursions involved commercial carriers. That does mean we still have some work to do in the GA community. We can make every protection possible, but the human in the loop is the challenge of the future. I expect that you’ll hear words like Tenerife and Colgan more than once in the course of this conference.

Those are the kind of questions that really drive home the point that human factors is the place for the next big jump in safety. The runway to the future must start right there. Thank you.