Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Regional Airlines Association, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
Regional Airlines Association, Washington, DC

Chairman Skeen, President Coleman, ladies and gentlemen of the Regional Airline Association: Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me.I'm glad to have a few minutes to talk with you after that great lunch. That was airline food, wasn't it?

Let me first congratulate and thank Kerry Skeen for his tenure as your Chairman and for his leadership in the industry's support of upgraded safety standards. I wish the RAA well in its election of a new Chairman today.

Many of you are Presidents and CEOs of your companies. I, too, am a CEO. In my case, I run the operations of one of the federal government's smallest agencies, but I believe one of the most important, the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB's 350 employees investigate about 2,500 accidents a year in aviation, highway, railroad, marine, hazardous materials and pipelines.

To do this job, the taxpayers have funded us to the tune of $38 million this year -- I believe some of you here are taxpayers. Although we monitor the effectiveness of the safety programs of the Department of Transportation's modal agencies and of billion dollar transportation corporations, to give you an idea of our relative sizes, our annual budget would fund the DOT for just nine hours! But $38 million is a lot of money from the American people, no matter how you look at it. As taxpayers, you're paying us to ensure safer transportation, and it's our job to deliver.

We all agree that our commercial aviation system has a marvelous safety record. But, as I'm sure you have noticed, it is hard to pick up a news magazine these days without reading another take on the state of aviation safety. "How Safe is This Flight?" asks Newsweek. "Flying Blind," screams the cover of U.S. News.

While we at the Board agree that there are some aspects of the aviation industry that bear watching, this kind of coverage is misleading and overly dramatic.As you know, in journalism, headlines and covers are marketing tools for sales. However, the facts show that on average, an airliner with more than 100 passengers aboard departs every 6 seconds, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Before last July's USAir accident in Charlotte, North Carolina, the major U.S. airlines had gone 27 months without a passenger fatality. This was a remarkable string of almost 1 billion passengers carried safely between fatal accidents.But the white knuckle flyer might say, "That's well and good, Mr. Chairman, but what about those commuters?" In 1994, the part 135 carriers had a fatal accident once every million flights. That was one fatal accident every million flights.

Regrettably, those amazing safety records never made it to the front page or on the nightly news or even in those very same news magazines. Yet this safety record represents the efforts of tens of thousands of dedicated professionals in industry and government -- like you -- all working together to design, operate and maintain the safest aviation system in the world.

And most every weekend one of those regional airline passengers is...your Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. You see, I'm a weekend commuter at my own expense between Washington, D.C., and my home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As you might imagine, on my way to Chattanooga I get to visit Atlanta, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Charlotte on a very regular basis. Now, I love those cities almost as much as Chattanooga, and it's great to pay a quick visit while I run down the corridor to make a connection. But, when I'm done here today, I'll be happy to meet with any of you in the corner to discuss the merits of nonstop Washington-Chattanooga service.

However I get home on the regional airlines, you always get me there, and I really appreciate the air service I get. I know that in the last year, there were more than 57 million passengers like me on the regional airlines. Your airlines make the only air connection to most of the towns and cities in America that receive scheduled air service. In fact, last year, the major airlines served 263 airports; the regionals served 805. Regional airlines are the fastest growing part of the passenger air transportation industry, and the people in this room are the ones who have made it happen.

Our commuter study last year convinced me that while improvements can and will be made, commuter airlines are safe. However, no matter how you look at the statistics -- and there are many ways to do that -- over the past ten years the Part 135 commuter airlines have had a somewhat higher accident rate than the major airlines. We don't need to analyze the reasons for that here; some might be due to the different regulatory requirements of Part 135s, some might be due to the different operating environment. The important thing is that I'm very encouraged by the industry's performance in the most recent two years.Those few accidents that do occur show where improvements can be made.

Just 2 weeks ago, the Safety Board met on the December 13, 1994 Raleigh-Durham accident. We determined the probable cause of the accident to be the captain's improper assumption that an engine had failed and his subsequent failure to follow certain approved procedures. The Board decided that the failure of airline management to identify, document, monitor and remedy deficiencies in pilot performance and training contributed to the accident.

We're currently considering what kinds of remedies should be proposed to deal with a safety problem that cropped up in this investigation -- inadequate sharing among airlines of pilot applicants' previous employment information. This is the fourth fatal accident in the last 8 years that involved pilots being hired when performance or training deficiencies were not shared between carriers. These accidents have killed 72 people and I think it's past time for the industry to deal with the issue.

Two other accidents in recent years highlighted issues that appeared in our subsequent safety study. On January 7, 1994, in Columbus, Ohio, 5 people died when their commuter airplane stalled while flying an ILS approach. Our conclusion was that the flight crew flew an unstabilized approach, failed to monitor airspeed, improperly responded to the stall warning, and allowed the airplane to stall. The airline also failed to provide its pilots adequate training in crew resource management.

Finally, 18 people died in an accident on December 1, 1993, in Hibbing, Minnesota. We found that this crew also flew an unstabilized approach, that the captain's actions led to a breakdown in crew coordination, and that the crew lost altitude awareness. The company's management failed to adequately address the captain's previously identified deficiencies, and failed to correct an unapproved practice that was widespread among the airline's pilots.

These accidents told us that the commuter industry can be safer. It is an unfortunate fact that the public often judges an industry by its least common denominator. We can acknowledge that the management and procedural deficiencies we encounter are the rare exception, not the rule, while at the same time making sure that we learn from these accidents before we find ourselves repeating them.

To improve the safety record in the future, the whole industry needs to move to a higher standard of pilot training programs, especially using flight simulators for training pilots' flying skills and crew resource management skills. Many of you already know this, because you're doing it. I guess the lesson of the accidents is that all airlines need to meet the highest standards of pilot training and flight operations.

In 1993, the FAA issued a study forecasting pilot and mechanic needs for the airlines into the 21st century. Your current president, Walt Coleman, was on the Blue Ribbon panel that created the report, although he represented another organization at the time. The report concludes that there is an impending shortage of pilots who meet the necessary qualifications, and the industry must immediately start to address this shortage.

Temporarily, the military services will provide qualified candidates during their downsizing, but other sources will have to be found in the future. The study projects the need for about 3,000 new-hire pilots a year for commuter airlines until the year 2004. How aggressive will the regional industry be to make sure this stream of qualified applicants continues?

That is a problem for the future that must be addressed. Last fall, the Board did its part to address a current problem -- the disparity in the public's mind created by the difference between the regulations under which commuters and the major airlines operate. The current regulations in Part 135 grew out of a "Mom and Pop" commuter airline industry, when the companies were often referred to as "puddle jumpers." The regulations just haven't kept up with the size, the complexity, and the important role of the commuter industry.

And I'm happy to say that the RAA has also done its part by supporting the findings of our study last year and agreeing to the need for heightened commuter safety regulations. Walt Coleman explained it best when he said, "It is important that we have a single rule, for all airlines providing scheduled air service, to remove any perceptions that regional airlines have less demanding regulatory requirements." Even though you argue with some of the provisions of the FAA's proposed rule, you have been a vocal advocate for the action and I salute you for that.

We could argue back and forth about exactly which regulations need to be changed to keep the public's confidence in commuter airlines, but the bottom line is this: There's no excuse for a double standard in scheduled passenger air transportation. Once you accept that philosophy, most of the regulatory pieces fall into place.

I also want to congratulate the FAA for acting quickly and thoroughly on their proposed rule to upgrade the regulatory standards for commuter airlines. The Board has been monitoring the progress of the final rule, just as many of you have been. We're still hoping to see the final rule out in the next few weeks. I hope I'm not premature in my praise of the FAA's action, as we haven't yet seen the final product. Nevertheless, I'm eager to see just what's in the rule, and whether it will follow through on the common standard for air safety that the FAA originally proposed.

If, as proposed, all commuter airliners with at least 10 passenger seats are moved into the Part 121 regulatory regime, many of your companies will have to establish a dispatching system, upgrade some equipment and enact stricter flight and duty time rules for their pilots. In an ancillary rulemaking, the FAA is proposing that all Part 121 carriers establish a safety officer position, a rule we wholeheartedly endorse.

The new rules will change the industry, no doubt about it. I recognize that the commuter industry is very diverse, and that the rule changes will mean different things to different airlines. For many, there's going to be a painful transition. While I believe strongly that everyone should drive to the ultimate goal of a common standard, I hope that the transition to the new rules is as painless as possible.

The new commuter rules cap a decade-long period that has seen the regional industry come under new safety regulations recommended over the years by the Safety Board. I know these safety devices have had a price -- none of this technology comes cheap. However, the immediate safety benefits brought about by TCAS and Ground Proximity Warning Systems (GPWS), both aimed at reducing collisions, and the long-term benefits of cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders, have helped make the commuter safety record more comparable to that of the major airlines.

In the middle to late 1980s, the Safety Board investigated a string of commuter airline accidents that we said would have been prevented had the aircraft been equipped with GPWS. Surely, the elimination of controlled-flight-into-terrain accidents, virtually unheard of in the major airlines since they've had GPWS, has and will prove that technology like GPWS more than pays for itself.

We've seen the genesis of recent accidents, but I'd like to turn the issue around and ask, where does safety come from? At the Safety Board, we address most of our recommendations for aviation safety improvements to the FAA. We do that because the FAA has the responsibility and authority to take action -- regulating, issuing bulletins, and so on -- that can affect all of aviation at once. But the regulations are just a framework for excellence. Safety doesn't really come from the FAA -- it comes from you, the leaders of the airlines, the people who set the policy and set the tone for your companies and employees.

An example of an industry that routinely exceeds the safety regulations under which it operates is corporate/executive aviation. Despite operating under Part 91, the same rules for general aviation, their safety record is closer to commercial aviation than to private aircraft. That is because these companies have made a tremendous investment in the safety of their passengers -- the CEOs and senior managers of their corporations.

So safety comes from inside, because you, also, have a tremendous investment in whom you carry. It is one thing for the FAA to set minimum safety standards, but you know you have to answer to a higher authority -- your passengers.

In most of the regional airline industry today, there's a special inside/outside relationship that can be a powerful safety benefit. That's the relationship between regional airlines and their major airline partners.

On an operational level, your major partner can be a wealth of information, financing and leadership to create a safer regional airline. For example, the crew resource management and line-oriented flight training programs at most of the majors are very advanced, and have a lot to offer. The major airline can take a fresh perspective on your operation, and use its considerable resources to help you fix what's broken.

We've recommended to the major airlines that they help out their regionals with operational oversight that includes safety audits and information sharing. So far the feedback we've been getting is fantastic. Most of the majors and regionals have realized that the public sees them as operationally linked, whether it's true or not.

In summary, this nation's air transportation system is the envy of the world. This is due to the diligence of thousands of people in industry and government who work every day toward an accident-free environment, and demand to know what went wrong when an accident does occur.

I'm proud of the pivotal role the 350 people at the National Transportation Safety Board play in this process. You can be equally proud of the thousands of dedicated professionals working at your member airlines to ensure their continued excellent safety record. And you at the RAA can be proud as an organization for your leadership in strengthening the safety rules for the entire industry.

The RAA and the NTSB are dedicated to the same goal -- aviation safety.

We are not adversaries, but partners in search of a common objective.

You rely on the resources of many companies and organizations to achieve that objective. Why not include us? Information in our files can be valuable for management and veteran employees by reminding them of pitfalls that have befallen others, and for new pilots and employees, by illustrating the experiences of those who have gone before them.

We are on the verge of a major step forward -- the new FAA commuter safety rules. This came about by our cooperative efforts, including the good offices of the FAA. But it came about for one important reason -- the American people wanted it. Both of us need to remember our common bottom line -- serving the American traveling public.

I pledge to you that the Safety Board is always ready to work with you to find the best ways to bring about solutions that address our mutual interests, and maintain our excellent air transportation system.

Thank you for your continuing support.



Jim Hall's Speeches