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Remarks Before The Airline Pilots Association Wisconsin Assembly, Washington, DC, August 21, 2003
Ellen Engleman Conners
The Airline Pilots Association Wisconsin Assembly, Washington, DC

It is a privilege to serve as the 10th chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. I follow in the footsteps of dedicated and gifted professionals and enjoy the unique opportunity to work with an amazing team of fellow Board Members and staff. On behalf of Vice Chairman Rosenker, Members Goglia, Healing and Carmody, as well as the 429 family members of the NTSB team, it is an honor to talk with you tonight.

Thanks to Captain Duane Woerth, Captain John Cox and the ALPA membership for inviting me to join you this evening. I also appreciate the excellent ALPA briefing that was provided by John Cox, Terry McVenes (Mick Venice) and Keith Hagy. Bobby, it's good to see you again - last time I saw Bobby was in the belly of a B-52 bomber up at Oshkosh - I won't say what the view angle was..

When I was in high school I had a faithful companion-- a tattered, dog-eared paperback written by Richard Bach, entitled "The Gift of Wings." I read that book at least a dozen times, gave copies of it to family and friends alike as Christmas presents and spent hours hanging out at a small airport near my high school.

I remember playing hooky to go to my first air show -- wandering around just looking,-- and getting one of the worst sunburns of my life. My 18th birthday present was a flight in a sailplane and a new copy of Neil Diamond's recording of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

As I entered professional life, flying became my major means of business transportation -- as a passenger I flew on every size plane, often logging over 100,000 miles a year. I have a favorite seat, a favorite airport and membership in just about every frequent flyer program that has ever existed -- now if I could only remember the account numbers.

But I've never been a pilot - yet, I see the magic of it all and I believe that flying is the stuff of dreams -- whether they be of travel to exotic places, the ability to follow the horizon and go beyond or the sheer magic of the orchestration of man and machine.

And so, it is with not a little awe that I stand before you to talk about Aviation Safety and the role that you and we play in laying the foundation for the next hundred years. And so, with deep respect for your profession and for you as individuals, I humbly offer my comments.

Much is to be celebrated with the centennial year of flight. As we look back in amazement at the last 100 years, from a wobbly flight of 12 seconds that went 120 feet (shorter than the length of a 737-800) at a height of about 10 feet to the development of a $115 billion airline industry involving 670,000 employees, of whom 71,000 are pilots. Human spirit and accomplishment are unlimited.

The past should be honored and celebrated. The individual and group achievements are the stuff of legend. And yes, we must remember the past in order to learn from it.

But as many of you have heard me say, the past is sometimes like a rocking chair, you can sit in it and rock and rock and rock -- it's comfortable and sometimes you don't want to leave -- in fact, you can use all your energy and end up not going anywhere.

So tonight I will spend my time and comments on our future years and outline a vision for safety that I hope will intrigue you and enlist your support.

First, I believe that we have a significant opportunity to truly make a difference in saving lives throughout the transportation system. This, of course, includes aviation but must also include all sectors of transportation -- rail, marine, highway and pipeline in order to reduce the more than 45,000 deaths that are occurring each year. Last year, there were 609 deaths in general aviation accidents. Yet there were 1300 rail-related, over 700 marine and nearly 43,000 highway deaths. As recently reported in the Washington Post aviation accident rates have been declining. It is my fervent hope that this slope line is a permanent one and not only a factor of the reduced air travel last year.

The national transportation system moves people, goods and services in a multi-modal and multi-national environment. The modes are interrelated and what happens in one will and does affect the others. When the port of Los Angeles was closed, it cost $2 billion per day and affected the rail and trucking industries. When chlorine shipments were held up by rail immediately after 9/11, cities came within hours of not being able to support their water purification plants. And you all in this audience have first-hand knowledge of what impact 9/11 had on your industry -- the world of aviation.

We know that 9/11 affected our nation in a profound and permanent fashion. Your professional lives have changed dramatically, the industry is still reeling from the financial impacts and the market is adjusting slowly. For both passengers and pilots -- new issues have entered into your lives -- guns in the cockpits, reinforced cockpit doors, the TSA, new passenger and security screening requirements -these are not headlines but day-to-day realities for you.

One constant remains the same, however, and must remain the same -- the issue of safety.

I do not believe that there is or can be a question of choice between safety OR security. In a post 9/11 world, we must find a way to accomplish both tasks without jeopardizing or negatively impacting the other. It must be safety AND security. There is a balance that will be achieved and must be achieved in order for your industry and our nation to continue to prosper. Let us remember that a strong economy is one of our greatest weapons against terrorism. The direct impact of the airline industry on GDP is $306 billion, and combined with related areas involving the hospitality and business sectors, equals $802 billion or 8.1% of the total GDP. Therefore it is critical that all partners in this industry, management, maintenance, the pilots, the flight attendants, the airports -- work together to get this industry back in the sky. And, it is critical to get furloughed pilots back to work. We need their expertise, their commitment and their contributions to the industry, and to safety. Our ultimate mission is to ensure public confidence in the national transportation system.

The role of the NTSB is unique -- I have had more than one person tell me that while they were delighted to meet me the first time, they hoped to never have to meet me again. I understand.

It's sometimes hard to determine how to frame one's words and thoughts when everything you say is based on the fact that an accident occurred and that lives were lost. But it is in tribute to them, that the work of the NTSB is focused -- that out of tragedy may come the promise of a safer future. May we learn in order to protect.

ALPA has been a tremendous partner in safety. ALPA has provided technical expertise and has been shoulder to shoulder with us on many issues. Out of TWA 800 came fuel inerting initiatives; from USAirways flight 427 came the redesign of the 737 rudder system; ALPA and the Safety Board have been supporting issues of flight and duty hours for more than 20 years; not to mention one of our great accomplishments -- one level of safety for commuters.

As the lead investigator in all aviation and transportation accidents, the NTSB is a fiercely independent agency that must remain so in order to accomplish our mission of determining the probable cause irrespective of fault. Once that probable cause is determined we issue our recommendations -- we have issued over 12,000 with 80+ percent acceptance rate .... and while that is good on its face, when I came to this office in March we had 1,025 open recommendations.

Open recommendations mean that the safety loop is not closed..... open recommendations mean that our job is not done.... the risks that have been identified still remain -- and action is yet to be completed.

So a key aspect of my tenure at the board will be to clean up the record of outstanding recommendations -- and we are focused in each mode, with the states and with industry to accomplish this task. I fiercely believe that the NTSB's independence should not be interpreted as adversarial. We must be partners in achieving safety, our goals, our mission and our dedication to protecting lives must be on parallel if not overlapping paths.

I have asked the FAA, and the other modes, to establish a SWAT team approach -- I call that Safety with a Team. And so, in a pragmatic fashion, we now have FAA staff sitting down with NTSB staff to review the open recommendations and find out where the stalemate exists. And I am delighted to say this effort is working. Since March we have closed 32 aviation recommendations - and Bobby - we only have 299 to go! Key areas that continue to need resolution remain on our Most Wanted List: Runway incursions, center wing fuel tank explosions, aircraft manuevering speeds and human fatigue.

Runway Incursions. We can't afford to wait for the perfect high tech solution and must find and implement low tech alternatives or phased in approaches, focusing on the dozen or so of the airports with the highest risk. The runway status lighting system to be installed at Dallas Fort Worth and the use of 24 hour runway guard lights at Las Vegas will hopefully provide immediate improvemetns and support a multi-layered approach to safety.

Center Wing Fuel Tanks. The FAA must complete a rulemaking to prevent operators from flying transport category aircraft with explosive fuel-air mixtures in fuel tanks. The FAA is currently working with Boeing to test a fuel tank inerting system designed to prevent fuel tank explosions, they have not set a deadline to certify the system. Sooner is better than later.

Icing. Icing is a continued serious problem. A thorough certification test program, including application of revised standards to airplanes currently certificated for flight in icing conditions, is merited. The NTSB recommends that the FAA ensure manufactures of turbine engine aircraft clarify minimum safe operating speeds in both icing and non-icing conditions, and that carriers publish the information in pilot training and operating manuals.

Human Fatigue. Operating any vehicle or vessel without adequate rest, in any mode of transportation, is dangerous. The laws, rules and regulations governing this aspect of transportation safety are archaic. I hope that all modes will soon respond t this issue as illustrated the new hours of service rules recently completed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The NTSB will be working with each of the other DOT modes in this SWAT team approach to address open NTSB recommendations and will continue to dog each and every one of them. Since March 24 we have closed 68 recommendations, and I want an upward slope on that graph.

Uniquely both Administrator Blakey and I have both issued and received recommendations from the NTSB. We have the experience of shared moccasins and I truly believe that under her management and the leadership of Transportation Secretary Mineta that the open NTSB recommendations in all modes will be addressed. Of course, as you know the NTSB is not a regulator --we are a bully pulpit but I am holding daily services.

As one of my sermons, I have asked Administrator Blakey to include resolution of NTSB recommendations to be an identified goal within the safety segment of the FAA in their 5 year strategic plan, "Flight Plan 2004-2008." I believe that the FAA's performance criteria should include their attention to NTSB recommendations and be so graded by Congress in both the issues of performance review and funding.

Performance and funding issues are also internal to the NTSB. We cannot make recommendations if we do not follow our own advice. As "CEO" of the Board, I am leading the staff in focusing on increased performance, fiscal management and quality of product delivery. The Safety Board must improve our ability to deliver an accident investigation report that is soundly developed based on science, data and facts and un-swayed by guesswork, supposition or desire. Our internal procedures are being reviewed to determine if there is a way to increase the timeliness of the reports. Yes, they must be thoroughly developed -- and cannot be hurried for false or artificial deadlines. That being said, I am focused on internal review of processes to see if we can increase our efficiency without affecting the quality. In a perfect world, no major accident report would take longer than 2 years, and general aviation and others would be finished in one year or less. Now that's a perfect world, but it is a goal as well.

And we're seeing results. Since March, the NTSB has conducted 112 accident investigations, testified in support of proposed safety legislation in 9 states, mad 34 Hill visits, fielded more than 1350 calls from the media or victim's families and our law judges have closed 131 cases and held 40 hearings. We have saved over $250,000 via procurement review and held 8 neetings and public hearings that included the most wanted list, 15 passenger vans, driver distraction, two rail acidents and Emery Worldwide Flight 17. We have also issued 47 new recommendations - so the beat goes on.

A new beginning will be the opening of the NTSB academy. This leased facility is located on the grounds of George Washington University in Ashburn, Virginia and offers new opportunities for safety partnership. It will house the NTSB investigation and safety training programs, offer opportunities for safety symposia, roundtable discussions and forums, formulate safety partnerships for research, development and implementation of new technologies and create a sanctuary for discussion of key safety issues and topics.

The National Transportation Safety Board relies on its partners in safety, and tonight is no different. This evening I ask ALPA and industry partners to join the NTSB in developing an Air Cargo Safety Forum at the NTSB Academy. With your help and the help of other industry and transportation leaders, this timely discussion can and will make a difference in achieving safer skies.

Lastly, the NTSB will continue to focus on the national transportation system and how we can enhance safety in all modes. You will see and hear the Board continue to discuss safety issues involving hard core drunk driving, the need for primary seatbelt legislation, child safety protection devices, safety in recreational boating, helicopters and rail, maintenance, human factors and airport response and firefighting. We have a lot of work to do.