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Remarks before the Airline Dispatchers Federation Symposium, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
Airline Dispatchers Federation Symposium, Washington, DC

Thank you for inviting me today. Since I arrived at the National Transportation Safety Board, I have spoken to many airline industry and employee organizations. But, this is my first visit with an association of airline dispatchers. I’m sure you agree with me it is long overdue.

As many of you know, the NTSB was established in 1967 as an independent agency whose mission is to investigate accidents, issue recommendations, and provide oversight of the operating and regulatory practices of the Department of Transportation. We do all of that with about 400 employees and our agency costs the American taxpayer about 18 cents a year – enough to fund the DOT for 10 hours of one day.

Because the NTSB does not regulate, fund, or control transport operations, we can be impartial and unbiased in our investigations and in making safety recommendations to improve the transportation system and, hopefully, prevent recurrences of accidents.

In that regard, we make recommendations to those entities that have the ability to influence and change the system – whether they are governmental agencies or private industries. In Fiscal Year 1998, we issued 377 recommendations to various aviation, rail, marine, highway, pipeline, and hazardous material organizations. Although the recipients have no legal obligation to comply with our recommendations, historically, they have accepted and implemented some 82 percent of them. And, we continually work to improve that percentage.

I am sure you are all very aware that transportation in general and aviation in particular is becoming an increasingly international industry, with more carriers operating globally, aircraft components being built by many countries, and citizens of many nations aboard every flight. Let me share just a few statistics with you:

• The International Air Transport Association estimated that in 1997, there was an eight percent increase in passenger traffic worldwide, to almost one and a half billion passengers annually.

• The DOT has licensed more than 400 foreign carriers to fly into the United States.

• And, tragically, there were citizens of 18 countries aboard Swissair flight 111, which crashed last month in Nova Scotia.

While we all recognize that we have an extremely safe transportation system, these factors, together with the incredible amount of media attention an accident receives, as well as increasing international economic concerns, require us to look for ways to make it safer. They all serve to focus attention on discovering what went wrong in an accident and, if airworthiness issues are uncovered, to fix them immediately.

The cost of each accident – both in its human toll and monetary expense – is enormous and has far-reaching implications. For instance, the DOT estimates that, in 1995, civilian aircraft, engines, and parts provided $26 billion toward our balance of payments in international trade. Today, Boeing has about 80 percent of the market share in aircraft orders.

No manufacturer – indeed, no manufacturing country – wants to repeat the Comet experience in the 1950s, when the world’s first commercial jet passenger airliner suffered a series of baffling crashes. By the time the problem was found and corrected, confidence in that aircraft had disappeared, the aircraft’s country of manufacture lost its brief leadership in jet transportation, and other manufacturers were able to step into the void and fill the aircraft orders.

However, as I said, we have a safe system. The accident rate, which, if it had held steady for the last 30 years, would have resulted in a major hull loss every week. That, of course, has not happened because the industry gets safer and safer every year. In 1996 – a year with several high profile accidents, including ValuJet and TWA 800 – the fatal accident rate for the nation’s scheduled airlines was 1/24th that of the rate in 1960, and one-third that of 1981.

This improvement was the result of more than just our recommendations and FAA regulations: it took a concerted effort by all of us – government, industry and organizations such as yours – to get it done. Yet, we all agree that one hull loss or even one fatality is one too many – especially when that loss was preventable. That is why none of us can rest on past accomplishments – we must strive every day to eliminate any potential safety problem.

Your symposium’s focus is on "Airline Operational Control Decision Making." This is appropriate. The decisions you make go a long way to ensuring the safety of every flight long before it ever takes off. While your role may not be well known or appreciated by the travelling public, no airline flight can be operated without you. I’d like to spend a few minutes examining the factors you must take into account before releasing a flight and how they impact on that flight’s safe passage:

• First, weather analysis for the departure airport, enroute, destination airport, and alternate airport. Weather has been a contributing factor in so many airline accidents that there is no way to overestimate the importance of your analysis. Just this past August, the Safety Board concluded its investigation of the Comair flight 3272 crash, which occurred as it approached Detroit in icing conditions. And, we are currently investigating a nonfatal accident of a DC-9 that landed in Chattanooga shortly after encountering a severe thunderstorm earlier this year. Although dispatching did not play a role in the Comair accident, we are looking into whether it played any role in the circumstances of the DC-9 incident.

• Second, operating and performance characteristics of many aircraft types. The importance of this was underscored in an incident related to me by one of the Safety Board’s investigators. Once, while he was a captain on a Boeing 727, he noticed that the flight number and the aircraft number had been inadvertently transposed on the flight’s paperwork. Aircraft number 825, which was to be used for flight 855, became flight 825 on aircraft number 855. This meant that the dispatcher thought the aircraft had more powerful engines and could therefore carry a bigger payload. Fortunately, the error was caught before takeoff.

• Third, maintenance considerations that include the minimum equipment and the configuration deviation lists of the aircraft. Obviously, dispatchers must be ever mindful of equipment outages or even slight structural anomalies – such as missing cover plates, access panels, inspection doors or fairings – in order to know whether the aircraft may be dispatched for flight, or if operational changes must be ordered.

• Fourth, coordination with air traffic control centers to anticipate and plan for the daily traffic flow within the National Airspace System. Although the airline may consider this more of an economic issue than a safety concern, ATC flow control is a built-in safety net for the nation’s increasingly congested airways.

• Fifth, weight and balance. We recently completed an investigation of last year’s crash of a Fine Air DC-8 cargo flight in Miami. The aircraft was improperly loaded and had a center of gravity at the aft limit or slightly beyond the limit, coupled with an incorrect elevator trim setting that led to the loss of control of the aircraft. Because Fine Air is a supplemental cargo carrier, it didn’t have aircraft dispatchers, just flight followers.

• Sixth, hazardous materials considerations. Everyone knows the potential for tragedy when undeclared hazardous materials are aboard an airliner which was underscored by the 1996 ValuJet accident. By the same token, dispatchers have to be aware of onboard hazardous materials so that they can inform flight crews and make operational decisions based on that knowledge.

• Finally, security concerns. While airlines may get many unsubstantiated threats against their property or flights, it is incumbent upon dispatchers to take such calls seriously and determine their validity.

Your importance to the safety of each flight you dispatch is underscored by the requirement that both you and the aircraft captain must jointly sign the dispatch. And, your responsibility continues once the flight departs. It is the dispatcher who must keep up with changing conditions – whether they involve weather, maintenance, passenger illnesses, delays, bomb threats, or a myriad of other reasons that might cause the flight to be diverted. I am sure you are all well aware, and take pride in the fact, that a dispatcher handles more flights in a day than a pilot may fly in a month or more.

But, the industry is evolving and you have to change with it, if you are to continue to provide the invaluable assistance that’s demanded of you.

As the FAA implements its "One Level of Safety," former commuter airlines are being brought under the Part 121 umbrella and they must establish dispatching operations. Obviously, we need to ensure that we have fully qualified dispatchers at all of these carriers. I believe that this is a positive development, but it is imperative that the airlines and the FAA do not loosen their certification standards for new aircraft dispatchers in order to facilitate this major change in the industry.

With the advent of free flight, your role will become even more critical. It is widely assumed that free flight will require more diligence by pilots and air traffic controllers, but the role of dispatchers will be equally important, especially in the flight’s planning stages.

To pilots, a direct course might seem the best way to proceed. However, to the dispatcher, the considerations of winds aloft, weather, fuel, and air traffic control may alter the point-to-point route of flight. Similarly, upper level waves and jetstream intensities may alter the altitudes of the flights as well. "Higher" may not always provide the best fuel economy. It may very well take dispatchers to re-educate pilots on why direct, free flight at higher altitudes may not always be the best course of action.

In addition, the amount of technology and information at your disposal continues to increase as is the pressure to keep airliners on time. As a result, the number of flights you’re asked to oversee is increasing and new automation is helping you handle the workload. This reliance on automation has a downside. The system is rapidly becoming depersonalized. Pilots used to meet with the dispatchers, now they are often handed a printed copy of the flight plan, weather data, and other flight information without ever seeing a dispatcher.

This lack of direct communication seems to be a weak link in the system. Direct communication ensures that the pilot has been apprised of any problems that the dispatcher sees and ensures that the pilot understands why the dispatcher made the decisions he or she did. It also gives the flight crew some assurance that you, the dispatcher, are aware of their problems.

Fortunately, some communication links have been improved. Ground to air communications via VHF radio have been enhanced by satellite communication systems, greatly improving an airline’s ability to contact a flight. For example, a Boeing 777 recently lost pressurization and needed to descend. Although the aircraft lost contact with ATC, the airline’s dispatch facility never lost contact with the plane.

I hope I’ve made my point – dispatchers are at the center of almost every operational decision made at an airline. You ensure:

• the efficient use of aircraft;

• the scheduling of flight crew members to meet mandated flight hours; and

• the safe and efficient movement of passengers and cargo.

It is imperative that you continue to avail yourselves of any and all information related to the safety of the flights you monitor. More importantly, you need to be able to communicate that information, not only to flight crews, but to the outlying stations that also depend on your resources and decision making.

Although pilots may be "the LAST line of defense" in ensuring a flight’s safety, you are undoubtedly the "FRONT line." The traveling public relies on your professionalism for the safety of their trips, even if they don’t realize it. They benefit from your fidelity to the dispatcher’s creed, which promises that you will never approve the operation of a flight that in your considered opinion is hazardous.

It goes without saying that we will continue to examine the role of aircraft dispatchers in our accident investigations, and, in that regard, we have beefed up our expertise in this area. Within the last year, the Safety Board has hired an investigator with an FAA aircraft dispatching certificate who was active in his airline’s dispatch operation and was an instructor teaching dispatch programs, both initial and recurrent, for several air carriers and for corporate flight departments.

Thank you for all you have done to ensure the safety of our air transportation system, and thank you for inviting me here today.


Jim Hall's Speeches