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Remarks before the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Annual Conference, Cleveland, Ohio
Marion C. Blakey
National Air Traffic Controllers Association Annual Conference, Cleveland, Ohio

Thank you, John for such a kind and warm introduction.

While the reaction from colleagues and others upon my nomination has been cordial and supportive, I have been getting a lot of "friendly advice"…if you know what I mean. Many have told me, "You know Marion, it'll be like drinking from a fire hose."

Well, to be quite honest, I'm tired of hearing that expression… Here we are talking about aviation and all of its colorful history and characters and that's the most creative expression anyone can think of?!? What I'm talking about is something like, "It'll be like working final approach at ORD during the afternoon push with a 4 pm thunderstorm…or maybe landing a squadron of doctors at Oshkosh-all in split-tail Bonanzas-with a 20 knot quarter crosswind…." Now, that's some intense action.

Seriously, thank you all for asking me to be here today. I gladly accepted John's invitation to speak before a group that I consider not only critical partners in my current job, but - - if confirmed - - even more so in my next job.

My only wish is that I could be here tomorrow night for your big bash at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You could say there's something fitting about holding an event at such a venue … because what you accomplished last September 11 would no doubt qualify for induction into an ATC hall-of-fame.

It makes me think about a scene in the movie Apollo 13.

First, I want to tell you that I could've used any variety of scenes from any number of airplane disaster movies. We've all seen them and most are universally bad. But the one thing they get consistently correct is the cool, unflappable manner of the air traffic controller.

So, although this involves space, I'm going to use this example for one reason only…it has some great dialog that I believe captures the spirit of this audience.

I'm sure some of you recall this scene… To put it simply, things were going terribly wrong. The capsule is about to re-enter the atmosphere, and mission control does not know if the heat shields will hold, they don't know if the parachutes will work-they don't know a lot. In the control room, a NASA press guy says with great alarm and anxiety, "This could be the worst disaster we've ever experienced." Gene Kranz, the flight director-played by Ed Harris-will have none of it. He coolly responds, "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."

Gene Kranz's primary focus-his only measure of success-was to bring those astronauts back to earth safely. It's a primary focus that I know those in this room have toward the crews and millions of passengers who travel our skies.

To say that things were going terribly wrong on that deceptively beautiful Tuesday morning almost one year ago is a gross understatement. And yet in the midst of all the confusion and fear and uncertainty, you were able to help guide 4,500 planes with 350,000 passengers and crew to a safe landing in just a few hours-- something that had not only never been done before, but had never even been contemplated.

Your skill and your competency made it possible. It truly was a "finest hour."

The reverberations of that day are still being felt in so many ways. The airline industry is obviously still trying to recover. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper to see how vulnerable the industry still is.

We all know that air traffic will rebound to pre-9/11 numbers and grow. The question is - - how quickly? With increasing capacity - - our challenge is to keep the focus on safety while still allowing the industry to operate securely, efficiently, and effectively.

As I mentioned, two days ago I went before the Senate for my confirmation hearing. If confirmed, I will be tasked with assessing and implementing many of the safety recommendations that the National Transportation Safety Board has issued to the FAA. I will no doubt find myself in the interesting position of responding to letters I have written…I can just imagine it, "Dear Marion, by the time you (I) read this …I will be expecting you (me) to have taken action" . . . the pronouns could get a bit wicked. But I will tell you - - I intend to follow through on those recommendations, vigorously.

NATCA has been a valuable partner to the Safety Board over the years. You have worked together with us on various recommendations, reports and investigations - - in particular your Aviation Safety Investigators program that provides us with primary contacts and expertise at all of the FAA's nine regions. Trained in accident investigation techniques, they truly have been a valuable resource to us.

I know you worked closely with my predecessor, Jim Hall, for an investigative report on Air Traffic Control Equipment Outages …

You are currently providing technical and procedural input for the FAA's Capstone project, which grew out of a Board report and recommendations for air safety in Alaska …

You are also assisting NASA in simulations intended to test the effects of some of the Board's runway incursion recommendations. As you know, these simulations are being sponsored and funded by the FAA Runway Safety Program-a program you have participated in from its inception well over 15 years ago. While I understand there are some late-breaking details to square away before the simulations begin, I'm confident all parties will work through them to get these simulations underway soon.

These are exactly the kind of partnerships that are critical to advancing transportation safety and preparing for the challenges ahead. Your leadership and your voice are critical in addressing many safety issues confronting us today.

Take preventing runway incursions, for example…it's one of the Safety Board's Most Wanted Safety Improvements and one that I tout with every opportunity I get.

Earlier this year, NATCA President John Carr wrote in USA Today that, "in our business, a single runway incursion is one too many. Air traffic controllers hold safety of air travelers as our sacred trust, and we believe education, training, awareness and vigilance are the keys to preventing incursions."

I couldn't agree more.

Over the years, the Safety Board has issued recommendations to address runway incursions - calling for procedural changes, education efforts, and technological improvements.

This past April, I was in the tower at O'Hare watching ATC operations and the AMASS system in operation. It was impressive to say the least-and the AMASS system operated pretty well, too. But although AMASS is a real improvement--it does have its limitations as you well know. It won't prevent runway incursions in all situations, mostly because the current AMASS parameters may not provide controllers sufficient time to prevent collisions. It also does not directly alert flight crews of potential collisions. And based on our information, it wouldn't have prevented last year's horrific runway collision in Milan, Italy, where a SAS MD-82 and a Cessna Citation crashed, killing 123 people - - an accident that could have just as easily occurred in the United States.

So, we need to continue to look for - - and the FAA must aggressively develop and employ - - additional technological solutions like those the Board has already supported for both high-density and lower activity airports, including ground loop technology, runway stop-bars, in-pavement lighting, and airport surface sensors using GPS technology.

It is in areas such as these where NATCA's perspective will be invaluable helping to develop the proper technology to head off tragedy.

We know technology alone will not solve these problems, and it will never supplant the real core of safety, which are people. People such as you - - whose professionalism, knowledge and skill enable you to perform in a stressful and high-energy environment where every single controller knows there is little room for error.

Runway incursions are only one of the many challenges we face as we head into the future. There are others that confront the FAA-all with great safety implications:

We need to coordinate with the Transportation Security Administration to maximize safety and security while allowing the system to operate effectively;

We need to continue developing innovative programs like some of the ones I mentioned and protecting existing ones - - such as the FAA's FOQA program. And we must continue implementing at a faster pace advanced communication and navigation technologies;

We also need to increase the aviation system's efficiency to accommodate anticipated increases in traffic - - enhancing our air traffic system capability and improving our use of the nation's airspace.

I have already cited several instances where working together can accomplish good things. I'd like to cite one more example that holds great promise to improve safety - the Operational Error Reduction Plan for 2002-2004.

This plan results from collaboration between NATCA and the FAA with the goal of focusing attention on those scenarios that have been identified as having the greatest potential for safety risks. Although, I will caution…we must be ever mindful of all scenarios-even ones that are seemingly "low potential" risks. Because even though levels of probability may differ by scenario, the stakes and consequences of an accident always remain high.

As Chairman of the Safety Board, I have truly valued our partnership … and, again pending confirmation, I would look forward to a solid relationship with you at the FAA as well - - a relationship that is a vital part of the agency's mission.

I know we may have some differences of opinion as we head down the road. I know we may at times have different viewpoints and different perspectives on some issues.

But I also know when it comes to filling our shared mission we will be able to put differences aside and focus on the goal of maintaining the safety of our skies.

As you know all too well - - the decision-making process required of a controller does leaves little room for distractions. With proper credit, I'm going to use the words of Don Brown, the "Zen of ATC," who summed up the decision making process pretty when he wrote about using that time-tested ATC mantra "Safe, Orderly and Efficient" in one of his recent NATCA safety columns. He said, "I use it just like a flow chart. Is it safe? Does it contribute to the safety of the operation? If - - and only if - - the answer is positive do you get to move on to "Orderly."

It's essentially the same philosophy that guides my decision making process - - and I'm pleased it's one we share - - the fundamental commitment to make the world's safest skies - - our skies even safer still.

Thank you again for asking me to be here today … enjoy the rest of your conference … and I look forward to working with all of you in the days and years to come.



Speeches & Testimony