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Remarks Before the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Eighteenth Annual Aviation Law Insurance Symposium, Orlando, FL
Robert L. Sumwalt
Orlando, FL

“Serving on The NTSB – Opportunity or Obligation”

Thank you very much.

I want to tell you that I get very passionate about the work the NTSB is doing. Truly, I believe the work we are doing does save lives. And that, in itself, is exciting.

In 2006, the NTSB completed 25 accident reports, approximately 1500 aviation accident briefs, held 25 Board Meetings, produced 3 Public Hearings and a Symposium, and launched to14 major accidents involving all transportation modes, 5 foreign accidents, and 227 regional accidents. 

We also closed 89 safety recommendations.

As it relates to aspects of our legal issues, our Administrative Law Judges were quite busy in 2006, as well. As you know, an airman or the FAA can appeal an Administrative Law Judge’s decision to the full five-member Safety Board, and last year, sixty-three of the judges’ decisions were appealed to the full Board for review. Of those, the Board decided 45 appeals, reversing the judges’ decision in three cases.

Eleven of the Board’s decisions were appealed to the US Court of Appeals, which resulted in ten decisions, affirming the Board in 5 cases, reversing the Board in one and dismissing four petitions for procedural deficiency.

Clearly, we are in the middle of very busy and productive times for the NTSB.

I want to tell you why I wanted to be a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

To be honest, I have long admired the NTSB. It has a very important mission and I like the fact that it is an independent agency that can call it the way we see it. We don’t pull any punches.

And I’ve followed the work of the Board for a long time.

I have vivid college memories of sitting on the floor of the Government Documents Library at the University of South Carolina, going through and reading NTSB accident reports.

As I read those reports I was fascinated by the work of the Safety Board.

That admiration and respect continued as I assisted the NTSB on a few investigations as a party member.

As someone who was actively working on the front lines to improve aviation safety, I viewed the Safety Board as a place where I could further channel that passion to really make a positive difference in the transportation safety business.

Our transportation system is vital to our nation’s economy and national well-being.

And although this system generally performs well, when transportation accidents do occur, it is imperative that we be able to reassure the American public that the Government is conducting thorough, timely, honest, competent and unbiased investigations. 

For forty years, the NTSB has fulfilled that role.

Through the tireless efforts of dedicated NTSB employees, many potential accidents have been prevented, lives saved and countless injuries reduced.

About 82 percent of our recommendations are implemented and that equates to higher levels of safety. Every time you see a child seat in an automobile, smoke detectors in airplane lavatories, emergency exit windows in commuter trains, or fire sprinklers on cruise ships, you are looking at results of NTSB investigations and recommendations.

During my Senate confirmation hearing, I testified that if confirmed I would work diligently to ensure that the NTSB maintains its well-earned status as the world’s preeminent transportation safety and accident investigation agency.

These aren’t just words that I said to say to the Senate so that I could sound good. As mentioned, I have followed the NTSB for a long time. I genuinely care for this agency and want to ensure that we preserve our status and continually improve. 

I also told the Senate that I looked forward to the opportunity to work in a professional and collegial fashion with my fellow Board Members and with dedicated NTSB staff and as we work together to enhance transportation safety.

We are doing that. We have a very good Board, with a great deal of diversity. Member Steve Chealander joined us as a Board Member on January 3 and he brings a great deal of aviation expertise, having flown with the USAF Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds, and as a Captain with American Airlines.

A commitment that I made to the Senate and to my colleagues is that when an item comes before me for board action, I will study the issues so that I can ask intelligent questions and clearly understand what we are dealing with.

That is a responsibility that I take all too seriously. My wife and family are still in South Carolina and I have the tendency to work until nine o’clock on Friday nights. Before board meetings, I find that I typically spend most of the preceding weekend re-reading the material and going through items in the public docket to prepare myself for the Board Meeting.

I realize that a good bit of my time is spent dealing with legal issues. That is why when I selected my special assistant, I resisted the urge to go our and hire another pilot. Instead, understanding the importance of having someone to compliment my aviation background with a solid legal background, I selected attorney. She should begin working for us very soon.

Now, let me briefly give you my overall thoughts and philosophy on accident investigation. Anyone who has taken the human factors course that I taught for three years at the University of Southern California Aviation Safety Program will tell you that that I strongly believe that we should not focus exclusively on the obvious human error.

It is one thing to say a person committed an error. It is quite another to try to understand all of the factors that may have influenced that error. Where was the rest of the system that should have prevented a simple error from being catastrophic?

The purpose of an NTSB investigation is to prevent accidents. If we focus solely on errors of front line operators, then we may miss valuable prevention opportunities because systemic flaws may remain undetected and thus, uncorrected.

If we are really interested in improving safety, then we must look at the entire system, not just focus solely on the front line personnel.

Outside my office I have framed the cover from an issue of ISASI Forum, the journal of International Society of Air Safety Investigators. It says, “The discovery of the human error should considered as the starting point of the investigation, not the ending point.”

I placed it outside my office to remind us all or the importance of going beyond simply stating that someone committed an error. We need to answer why the error was made.

I am very proud and honored to have been selected to serve our nation.
And I think this is what this is all about – serving. 

I recently read something about government service, and I’ll share a quote from it:

“Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states and sometimes the world.”

I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the Board.

When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, “you know, we - Board Members, professional staff, industry, labor, government – we all worked together and we did make a positive impact.”

Come to think of it, I think that explains where the passion comes from. Ever since getting involved in safety business some 20 years ago, I’d had a burning desire to simply take this business and make it just a little better than I found it. 

And I suspect that is what probably drives most of us – to simply make our profession just a little better. And, I suspect our devotion to that cause explains why we are all here on a Friday night. I think we all share the passion.

Keep up the good work. Safe travels and may God Bless America!