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Remarks for the Air Line Pilots Association Annual Air Safety Forum, Washington, DC
Marion C. Blakey
Air Line Pilots Association Annual Air Safety Forum, Washington, DC

Thank you, John (Capt. Cox.) for that kind introduction.

And a lot of kind and generous support from ALPA all the way around - - from briefings to jump seat rides up and down the East Coast with John and a number of ALPA pilots, you guys have been terrific!

However, considering I've been asked by President Bush to go over to the FAA, I can't help but think of that classic oldie by the Shirelles, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"…or next year, for that matter?

Seriously, I have valued our partnership during my time at the Board-working with such safety stalwarts as Captain Woerth, Captain Cox and a group of consummate professionals - - ALPA members, particularly its safety team. I am looking forward to continuing and strengthening these relationships.

And, these relationships are critical to advancing transportation safety and helping the Board prepare for the challenges of the 21st century.

Indeed, the days of just "kicking tin" to find the cause of a modern commercial aircraft accident are over… new and revolutionary technologies hold undeniable and exciting possibilities for flight and safety and keeping pace with advanced technology is the key to preparing the Board for the future. And, we have been working hard to meet these challenges.

We place great faith in technology to make transportation safer, more secure and more efficient. Yet, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, something Wilbur Wright said at the time still rings true today.

Back in 1901, at a time when he and his brother were just beginning to experiment with gliders, Wilbur wrote that, "if you are looking for perfect safety you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds … but if you really wish to learn you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."

Nearly a century later, it is still those of you who get in the machines and operate them who provide us with the most valuable safety insights. It is your views from the flight deck that can help us identify problems or trends before they result in tragedy.

And, as you know, most flights are routine. But on those rare occasions when something does go wrong, it is you who have to make the split-second decisions that will affect the safety of your aircraft, your crew, and perhaps hundreds of lives.

And, with the strains on the airline industry right now, your leadership and voice will be even more critical.

New security procedures, guns-in-the-cockpit, bankruptcy and layoff announcements…pose significant challenges to the aviation industry. Our challenge in this atmosphere is to maximize safety while allowing the industry to operate effectively and securely.

With more and more airlines announcing the need to trim millions in costs, those programs that support training and technology to maintain and enhance safety need to be protected. For despite our good safety record, serious safety issues continue to lurk and we must not let our guard down.

Take runway incursions, for example. At the Safety Board, we consider runway incursions one of the most serious safety issues.

And, there's a reason it's on our Most Wanted List of safety improvements …There were 383 runway incursions in the US last year - - that averages out to more than one a day and is almost double the 200 that occurred in 1994. And although that is 43 fewer than in 2000, we have to remember that air traffic was greatly reduced in the last quarter of the year.

Now, some would say they can't remember the last time a runway incursion resulted in a fatal accident. I'd respond that we can only beat the odds for so long. Let me tell you about three very close calls among many from last year:

  • Seattle, WA - MD83 and MD80 missed by 60 feet;
  • Ft. Lauderdale, FL - Boeing 767 and 737 within 100 ft. of each other;
  • Dallas, TX - Two Boeing 737's missed each other by 50 ft.

Also, we should not forget the 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.

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

In 1991, the Safety Board recommended a collision avoidance system for aircraft ground operations. In response, the FAA began implementing the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), which gives controllers at the busiest airports valuable information on potential collisions. And, just a side note - - AMASS - - we believe - - would not have prevented the accident in Milan.

This past April, I was in the tower at O'Hare watching ATC operations and the AMASS system in operation. It is impressive. But although AMASS is a real improvement - - it does have its limitations. 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.

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 lower activity airports, including ground loop technology, runway stop-bars, in-pavement lighting, and airport surface sensors using GPS technology.

It is in areas like these where ALPA's help and the pilots' perspective is invaluable in developing the proper technology to head off tragedy.

But, as I mentioned earlier, no matter how much advanced technology proliferates through the industry, there will always be the human element - - the human link in the safety chain - - those who are willing, for better or worse, in the words of Wilbur Wright, "to get off the fence, to mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks."

And, although technology can assist - - it will never supplant people, who are the core of safety. This is why flight crews need such an enormous amount of training and knowledge and skill to be able to perform in an environment that is notoriously unforgiving.

The fact that so few accidents take place is due in large part to the healthy respect afforded to the vigilance and training by everyone in aviation, particularly the pilots.

And especially, in this current climate, where bankruptcies and security issues consume significant time and energy - - pilots need to remain vigilant and help keep the focus on safety.

The view from the flight deck, what you see and experience, so to speak - - is essential in ensuring that our aviation system remains the safest in the world. The more information - - the better. That's why I would also like to ask for your continued support in getting such a valuable safety tool as FOQA in place throughout the industry.

We know how crucial your role can be in safety initiatives. Your involvement has already paid huge safety dividends in crew resource management training - an extremely successful undertaking where we worked closely with the pilots and which has without a doubt prevented numerous accidents.

FOQA programs are currently used extensively and quite effectively by airlines in many countries. And yet, despite their record as a proven tool for preventing aircraft accidents, FOQA programs are being used by only a few US airlines because of data-confidentiality issues.

Last year the FAA codified enforcement protection for any operator who operates aircraft under a FOQA program approved by the FAA. The regulations provide protection against disclosure of certain safety and security information submitted to the FAA on a voluntary basis.

We at the Safety Board are committed to protecting the privacy of data and preventing it from being used in court. We must make sure this valuable source of information does not disappear because a pilot acting in good faith suddenly finds himself or herself facing the threat of liability or litigation.

The airlines, the FAA and the Safety Board all need to safeguard this information if we are to benefit from its tremendous value in preventing accidents. For this reason, FOQA information must never be used in a punitive manner, especially when it is voluntarily reported.

What are the dividends if we continue to work together to maintain and enhance safety?

In February 2001, the Board adopted a safety report on the survivability of U.S air carrier accidents that I found very encouraging. The study examined accidents that occurred between 1983 through 2000. It showed that 51,207 passengers survived those crashes - - that's almost 96%!

That's a measure of performance we can all take pride in and it's a compelling testament to your commitment. But as you know too well, we can never be satisfied or grow complacent. Aviation safety doesn't tolerate it.

In the early days of flying, air force pilots were chosen from the cavalry, with the reasoning that if you could handle a horse you could probably handle an airplane.

But it was more than coordination they were looking for. They were also looking for certain personal qualities such as confidence, self-discipline and the ability to think under pressure.

As the award-winning author and pilot William Langewiesche said, "Safety is ultimately in the hands of the operators … because it involves a blizzard of small judgments."

And it is these judgments by the pilots and their experiences that make them - -and you - - such valuable players in aviation safety … and such welcome partners in National Transportation Safety Board investigations - - and our mission.

Thank you again for asking me to be here today … and thank you for all of the important work you do to keep our skies safe.



Speeches & Testimony