Air Traffic Control Association - Global Aviation Conference

​​​​​​Remarks as prepared for delivery.​​

Thank you so much, Carey, for having me. I appreciate your kind words and congratulate you on your new role at ATCA.

We come together today to celebrate excellence. 

Excellence in the development, operation, and maintenance of the worldwide air traffic control system. 

Excellence displayed in the actions of the award recipients we’ll soon honor.

And excellence in aviation safety.

The U.S. is currently enjoying a record level of safety. 

We have the safest airspace in the world, period. 

A few days ago, I was visiting an airline and was asked how I see the accidents I see and still fly. My response: the most dangerous part of your trip is getting to and from the airport. Each year, about 43,000 people are killed on U.S. roadways; 1.35 million globally. That equates to about 3700 people dying every single day. 

The fact is the critical efforts of everyone in this room have contributed to the tremendous success we’ve seen in aviation safety and our reputation in the U.S. as the global “gold standard.” 

We have a lot to be proud of! 

Yet, we cannot take our safety record for granted. 

I often hear that there’ve been no passenger fatalities among major air carriers in the U.S. in 12 of the last 15 years. 

That’s true, but we can’t forget about those who were killed in three of those years. 

And for the other 12, we have to remember that “the absence of a fatality or an accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety.” Let me repeat that. 

“The absence of a fatality or an accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety.”

The past year is full of examples. 

There have been far too many close calls and near-misses on our runways.

Let’s start with runway incursions, the most serious of which appear to be on the rise. 

The NTSB has opened investigations into 7 runway incursions this year alone. Combined, these events put more than 1300 human lives at risk.

On the high end, the closest proximity between the aircraft was over 3,000 feet — that was the February 16th incident in Sarasota.

But in OVER HALF the incursions we’re investigating, the aircraft got much, much closer: 

  • ​February 27th, Boston: 400 feet of separation between the aircraft. 
  • February 22nd, Burbank: 300 feet. 
  • February 4th, Austin: less than 200 feet. 
  • August 11th, San Diego: less than 100 feet. 

Then there are the wrong-surface landings. We recently published our findings following two events: one in Tulsa and one in Pittsburgh.

And we just opened an investigation into last week’s runway collision in Houston. 

Thankfully, no one was hurt or seriously injured in any of these incidents. 

But they could have. They could have. 

It only takes one.

These recent incidents serve as a wake-up call for every single one of us, before something more catastrophic occurs. 

Our entire mission at the NTSB is to prevent that NEXT accident. It’s why we look at aviation incidents in the first place. 

There’s a question I’m often asked: “What keeps you up at night?” 

The answer is always the same…it’s the next family I’ll meet who’s lost a loved one in a preventable tragedy. 

And it’s the conversations I have with our investigators on scene about how that tragedy could have… should have…been prevented had one of our safety recommendations been implemented. 

That’s why I…why the entire NTSB… refuse to ignore the warning signs. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels and say, “but we’re safe.” And we can’t just say, “be more vigilant.” 

Let’s face it: this is a real challenging time for aviation. We have to start with admitting that.

The entire industry and its workforce are still recovering from the stress of the pandemic. We’re seeing more retirements and new hires which create a host of opportunities and challenges, including the need to ensure our workforce is well-staffed, well-trained, and mentored. 

And that just culture that enables – empowers – employees to speak up, no matter how junior, when their safety or the safety of others is at risk is incorporated into every facet of the aviation industry – from design and manufacture to operations and maintenance.

And in the U.S., our airspace — already the most complex in the world — is about to get even more congested. Drones. Advanced air mobility. Even more commercial space launches and reentries. In 2023, we had 95 licensed launches and 6 licensed reentries. A decade ago: 12 launches and 3 reentries. The FAA projects we could see a high of 288 launch and reentry operations in 2027, just five short years from now.

That’s a lot of stress on the workforce which is why we must strengthen every part of our aviation system… build in even MORE redundancy, which is the foundation of our safety record.

I’m talking about technology, an area where ATCA members really shine. 

I recently visited air traffic controllers at DCA, where I got to spend some time in their training simulator. I saw what it’s like to manage traffic at the most heavily utilized runway in the nation, first WITH surface surveillance technology and then WITHOUT.

The difference was night and day. 

The runway incursions I mentioned earlier? Airport Surface Detection Equipment, or ASDE-X, alerted air traffic control of an impending collision in only 3 of those 7 cases. The other four airports didn’t have ASDE-X.

In fact, all but two of the 16 most serious incursions from 2022 occurred at airports that either didn’t have surface surveillance technology or where the systems weren’t operational at the time. 

The NTSB has strongly supported technology to strengthen runway safety for decades; our oldest open recommendation was issued to the FAA 23 years ago. 

And yet, today, ASDE-X is at only 35 U.S. airports. ASSC is at 8. Only 20 have Runway Status Lights.

This is usually the point where someone points out the high cost of something like ASDE-X. 

To them I say: what about the cost of lives lost? The cost of losing the public’s confidence in our aviation system? 

Listen, there is no shortage of innovation. We are literally launching people into space on the regular — surely there MUST be other solutions out there with proven safety benefits! 

I bet there’s at least a half-dozen lifesaving innovations created by people3 in this room just waiting to be implemented. 

It’s interesting to stop for a moment and think about where we are today in terms of technology. Think about what’s occurred just in the last few decades to vastly improve safety. 

In the 70s and 80s, there were a number of fatal accidents resulting from wind shear. In 1988, the FAA mandated that all commercial aircraft have on-board wind shear detection systems within five years, which completely eliminated wind shear accidents. The last wind shear accident involving commercial aircraft occurred in 1994, nearly 30 years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina. The crash and ensuing fire killed 37 people and injured more than 20 others. 

Certainly, installing lifesaving technology at more airports and in our aircraft won’t come cheap, which is why we’re strenuously advocating for the FAA and NTSB reauthorization bills that are working their way through the House and Senate. Both agencies need adequate and sustained funding to keep our ground, towers, and skies safe at such a pivotal moment.

There’s some good news: the White House recently announced a $26 million investment to prevent more close calls and near misses. It’s a fantastic move at a time we need it most! 

But we need even more resources. 

“Without a continued investment in safety, the current standard Americans expect could be jeopardized in the future.” That’s from the White House. 

We have a clear choice: invest in the technology needed to protect our safety record or don’t. It really is that simple. 

I want to switch gears for a moment and address mental health in the aviation industry.

 I know you’ve all heard about the Alaska Airlines and Delta incidents. The NTSB is NOT investigating those incidents, nor am I commenting on them. 

My general observation is that news stories spread like wildfire when they’re about someone experiencing severe mental health distress on an airplane. 

These are the most extreme examples.

The fact is one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, and over half of adults with a mental illness don’t receive treatment, totaling over 28 million individuals. Most of these illnesses are not severe. 

I tweeted an article yesterday from Dr. William Hoffman, who is a neurologist, aircrew brain health researcher, and Assistant Professor of Aviation at the University of North Dakota. 

He said, “Recognizing that mental health is on a dynamic spectrum and that many pilots could benefit from talking to a professional mental health provider at some point in their career has the potential to keep pilots flying healthy while also increasing safety in the system.”

I couldn’t agree more except I’d apply it to the entire aviation industry. Mental health doesn’t affect those in aviation any differently than it affects others around the world. We’re all human, which means we’re all affected by fatigue, illness, grief, and other work-related or personal stressors. 

But everyone should feel safe speaking up, getting the help they need, regardless of their profession. Aviation should be no different. 

And yet, it IS different. In practice, if not on paper, FAA rules haven’t kept up with the science around mental health, let alone modern attitudes. 

It’s somewhat of an open secret that current rules incentivize people to either lie about their medical history when it comes to mental health OR avoid seeking help in the first place. 

I am frankly concerned about the safety consequences of a system that unintentionally shames and silences people who are struggling. 

Regardless of their profession, people MUST feel safe getting the help they need WHEN they need it. And leaders like us need to talk about it, get comfortable being uncomfortable, to help provide a safe space for others to get treatment. 

I feel passionately about this, which is why I’m pleased to announce here today that I’m launching a series of discussions on issues vital to aviation safety…because we can prevent the next accident or incident, working together. And the time is now!​

The first will be on mental health in aviation. We’re targeting December 6th. Our goal is to explore ways FAA can modernize its approach to mental health while managing risk in the national airspace.

The second event will cover runway safety technology, where we’ll ask, “what else is ‘out there’ RIGHT NOW to prevent the next surface incident?” 

The last topic will be on aviation workforce development & training…what does the workforce need to succeed? More to come. 

Now, join me in turning our attention to today’s honorees.

These are the safety “rockstars” who, despite the challenges of the past year, have had an outsized impact on moving us towards the NTSB’s vision for the future of aviation.

That vision can be summed up in one word: zero.

Zero aviation deaths. 

Zero aviation injuries. 

Zero for workers, zero for passengers, zero for everyone. 

Congratulations to today’s winners. I’m incredibly excited for you and even more excited to work with you to improve safety.

Thank you.