Thank you, Secretary Buttigieg and Acting Administrator Nolen, for hosting today’s call to action and for your safety leadership.
The U.S. has a lot to be proud of; we’re currently enjoying a record level of aviation safety.
That doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen by chance. A safety record like ours is the result of YEARS…decades…of intentional effort.
The critical efforts of everyone in this room — from operators, manufacturers, and labor unions to private aircraft owners and pilots, the FAA, the NTSB, and the media — have contributed to our reputation as the global “gold standard” for aviation safety.
But we can’t take that for granted.
I often hear that, in 10 of the last 12 years, there have been no airline passenger fatalities.
That’s true, but 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.
There’s always more we can do to improve safety and we can’t forget that. And we can’t forget those who did die or were seriously injured.
The NTSB never forgets; not a single life lost. Zero is and always will be our goal.
In calling for this Safety Summit, Acting Administrator Nolen said: “Now is the time to stare into the data and ask hard questions.” I couldn’t agree more.
There have been far too many close calls and near-collisions recently, any of which could’ve had devastating consequences with precious lives lost.
The NTSB is currently investigating 6 runway incursions since January — including one at Austin where the aircraft came within 100 feet of each other, endangering the lives of 131 people onboard the two aircraft. The two planes in Burbank were within 300 feet of each other.
We’re also investigating two wrong-runway landings that happened last June. One was a cargo plane in Tulsa with two crew members on board. The other was a passenger flight in Pittsburgh, where 174 people were at risk.
And we’re investigating two significant events that occurred in December on the same day, both in Hawaii. One was a severe turbulence incident that left 25 people injured. In the other, the aircraft came within several hundred feet of hitting the Pacific Ocean.
These recent incidents must serve as a wake-up call for every single one of us, before something more catastrophic occurs. Before lives are lost.
Too often, we’ve seen the federal government and industry act after an accident...after lives are lost…once the headlines appear. Congressman Oberstar, who I used to work for, called that the “tombstone mentality.”
Our entire mission at the NTSB is to prevent that next accident. In fact, that’s why we look at incidents, which is especially important at this pivotal moment.
And it is a pivotal moment.
This is a real challenging time for aviation.
The industry is ramping back up from the pandemic, during which there were a number of layoffs and retirements. A new workforce is coming in; they need to be adequately trained. Those who were out during the pandemic need to be re-trained.
And 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.
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 will 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.
The NTSB has 7 recommendations on runway collisions that haven’t been acted on. One of those is from 23 years ago.
How many times are we going to have to issue the same recommendations?
When we do, we sometimes get a response back saying, “it’s too expensive.”
Let me ask you a personal question: Can your loved ones’ lives really have a price tag? How about your spouse? Your child? Your best friend?
That is who we’re talking about.
We held a forum in 2017 on runway incursions. The FAA, industry, and labor made presentations, with the FAA highlighting pilot deviation and ATC communications as the key concerns.
We came out of that forum with everyone calling for better data and implementation of technology to prevent runway incursions, like ASDE-X or ASSC.
Today — 6 years later — we have the data. There are roughly 1,500 to 1,700 runway incursions annually. The vast majority are low- or no-risk. But it only takes one.
And we have the technology. But ASDE-X is only at 35 airports. ASSC is at 8.
Speaking of runway incursions, the 6 from this year that I mentioned earlier all have something in common: the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was overwritten.
Right now, you know that CVRs only need to record 2 hours of audio before they are overwritten, which is why we’ve recommended 25-hour CVRs.
Twenty-five-hour CVRs don’t just help all of us learn from accidents and incidents; they can help operators improve safety and prevent future accidents.
The fact is, Europe has mandated 25-hour recorders on new aircraft for over a year. We should do the same. And we should retrofit certain in-service aircraft with 25-hour CVRs. Both are NTSB recommendations from 2018; both remain open. That means no action.
Now, let’s talk about turbulence. It’s the most common accident involving Part 121 air carriers.
It’s especially dangerous for flight attendants, where turbulence accounts for 3 out of every 4 flight attendant injuries.
We issued a report in 2021 to prevent turbulence-related injuries.
It had 21 new recommendations and 4 that we re-iterated on weather reports, increased sharing of turbulence events, the need for flight attendants to be seated with their seatbelt buckled during certain phases of flight, and the need for parents to secure children under 2 in their own seat with an FAA-approved child restraint system.
All 25 turbulence recommendations remain open.
Addressing these and so many other issues is how we make our skies safer today. The time to act is now. We have lots of planned discussion today — we also need planned action.
Acting Administrator Nolen challenged us to examine everything, from the U.S. aerospace system’s structure, culture, processes, and systems to the integration of our safety efforts.
And he challenged us to ask the hard questions.
Everyone in this room needs to ask ourselves the hard questions. That also applies to those of us in the federal government. It applies to me.
We all need to ask: Are WE doing everything possible to make our skies safer?
We’ve been asking ourselves that very question at the NTSB.
And over the past year, we’ve been holding a series of Safety Summits of our own, where we invite stakeholders from all modes to provide frank and candid feedback on how we’re doing — and how the NTSB can improve.
We have one more Safety Summit left — on aviation — which we’re targeting for mid-April, so stay tuned.
All that’s to say: we are asking ourselves the hard questions at the NTSB.
We all should. Because our “gold standard” of aviation safety depends on it.
Passengers depend on it.
Your flight crews depend on it.
Air traffic controllers.
Flight attendants and so many others.
And so do their families.