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Remarks to the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association 5th Anniversary Spring Conference, Scottsdale, AZ
Robert L. Sumwalt
Scottsdale, AZ

Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to be here.

I have vivid memories of being a newly minted, 17 year-old Private Pilot, going out in a Cherokee 6 and riding with my flight instructor as he flew that “dream job” of hauling checks in the middle of the night for Bankair.

Today - some 33 years later, I am proud to be speaking at a meeting of an organization whose Chairman of the Board is the part of the family who founded Bankair and today is Vice President and Chief Pilot of that company. Of course, I’m taking about Jeanne Cook, of Bankair.

Jeanne, I am proud of what you and your family have done with Bankair, and I am proud of what you, Stan, and your colleagues have done with Regional Air Cargo Carrier’s Association! Congratulations!

A few years ago, the regional cargo industry was being portrayed in an unfavorable light. Today, RACCA is trying to take industry whose reputation may have been somewhat misunderstood, somewhat tarnished, and really pull that industry up by the bootstraps.

I applaud your stellar efforts – your dedication – your commitment – to improving the safety and standing of your profession.

The NTSB has had a long-standing interest in air cargo safety. Three years ago, we held the NTSB Air Cargo Safety Forum.

The goal of that forum was to facilitate industry - government dialogue on air cargo safety and to help advance the important work currently being done in this area. Richard Mills gave an excellent presentation there.

The Safety Board recognizes that air cargo is a critical segment of our transportation system and our economy and we need to do all we can to ensure that the highest safety standards are maintained.

The Safety Board has also had a long-standing interest in Corporate Culture and its relation to transportation safety.

I’d like to make that a theme of this morning’s discussion.

One of my mentors is Dr. John Lauber who served on the Safety Board from 1985 to 1995. I consider him to be without a doubt, one of the finest board members to ever have served on the Board.

Dr. Lauber once said, “Corporate culture has a very real influence on the attitudes and performance of the people within an organization. There is no question in my mind that management decisions and actions, or more frequently, indecisions and inactions, cause accidents.”

I firmly believe that a major responsibility of management is to establish and maintain a safety culture. And, by my being here this morning, I’d like to try to entice you to attend the workshop on “Developing a Safety Culture in the Regional Cargo Industry” that will be later this morning in one of the break-out sessions.

I know that the notion of safety culture is something that is often talked about, but few understand how to actually achieve it. My desire is to provide you with useful tools that you can use to establish a safety culture. When I was running a Fortune 500 corporate flight department, I used these very methods to form a safety culture—and it works! Come join us.

I want to illustrate how lack of a safety culture can lead to undesirable outcomes in the air cargo business. To do that I thought I would share my stamp collection with you. When I was a young child I started collecting stamps. I think I lost most of them by the time I was eight.

In recent years I have started collecting again, but it is an unusual collection. You see, I collect airmail from the 1920’s and early 30’s, and what makes this collection unusual is that this airmail often didn’t make it to its destination because it was in a plane crash. Here are a few of these letters.

Of course, you don’t need me to remind you that delivering the mail is the very business that you are in. It may be US Mail, it may be UPS, DHL or FedEx boxes and packages, it may be flying checks for the Fed, but whatever shape or form it happens to be in, you are basically hauling the mail.

Like the mail pioneers that preceded you, there is the potential to allow operational pressures to influence your decision making – pressures like getting the mail to its destination.

In those early airmail days, it looks like there was a serious lack of safety culture.

There was ruinous competition, pilot pushing, and a drive to get the mail delivered at all costs.

After all, those who couldn’t deliver soon lost their contracts.

But, those pressures came with a price. Lives were lost, aircraft destroyed and the precious cargo was oftentimes destroyed in flames.

At the entrance to the NTSB’s Training Center, we have a plaque that says: “From tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety of us all.”

And, that is precisely what we do at the NTSB. We conduct thorough investigations so that we can learn from these tragedies and thus, prevent future accidents. But, by its very nature, accident investigation is very reactive. I think it is better to be proactive—prevent the accident from occurring in the first place.

Often, it is those in the industry themselves—in this case the regional cargo carriers—who can make the best improvements in the least costly and most effective way.

The RACCA safety initiative is an excellent way of doing this. Let’s look at a few elements of this.

  • Fatigue Education Program
  • Initial Operating Experience and Interim Line Checks
  • Approved Ground De-Icing /Anti-icing Program.
  • Extended Flight Following
  • New Technology

I won’t spend time discussing each of the items on the list, but I want you to know that I think you are on the right track.

I came from 24 years as an air carrier pilot and safety advocate. As you know, the major scheduled air carrier safety record in recent years has been extraordinary. I note many of the items on your proposed safety initiative are things that major scheduled air carriers already practice.

Without discounting the importance of the rest of the items on the list, I did want to highlight “fatigue” since it is of long-standing interest to the Safety Board.

In fact, fatigue has been on the Safety Board’s List of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements since the list’s conception in 1990. We have issued over 80 recommendations related to fatigue in all modes of transportation.

Due to the nature of many of your schedules – flying in many cases during late night and early morning hours - I suspect that your operations may be more conducive to fatigue than some other operations.

Years ago, fatigue may have been associated with laziness. Today, we must acknowledge that fatigue is not a weakness but rather, understand that the need for sleep is a vital philosophical function that must be met. Like food and water, if you don’t get enough, your body will eventually quit functioning.

Fatigue is a serious issue and can have detrimental affects on transportation safety.

I believe that a reasonable approach to fatigue requires a two-pronged approach – 1) personal responsibility and 2) management’s attitude towards fatigue.

First, personal responsibility. The Safety Board has seen a number of accidents in all modes of transportation where crewmembers have been given rest opportunities, but for whatever reason, did not take advantage of those rest opportunities.

As Beth Woods pointed out yesterday afternoon, our employees must understand the safety implications of fatigue and take personal responsibility to get proper rest.

Secondly, I strongly believe that management must have a reasonable attitude towards fatigue. Understand that pilots generally are very task-oriented. I can say this because I have some 14,000 flight hours.

Pilots generally want to “get the job done.” While task-orientation is often a good trait because you want dependable people working for you, I’m afraid this trait can work against us for safety purposes. What kind of pilot wants to call in and say they are too tired to come to work?

They feel that you are paying them to get the cargo to its destination, and if they can’t accomplish that task, at least sub-consciously, they feel as if they failed do their job and they have let the company down.

So, I feel that it is important to have a structure in place to accommodate them doing the right thing.

When I was running a Fortune 500 flight department, our practice was clearly spelled out - if a pilot did not fly because he or she was fatigued, we would not doc their pay or their sick leave.

One of the corporate values of the company was “Do what is right.” We wanted to give aviation department employees the incentive to do the right thing by making that call when they were fatigued.

At the NTSB’s Air Cargo Safety Forum, fatigue expert Dr. Mark Rosekind, said: “Success requires a culture change that supports different attitudes and behaviors.”

What kind of culture have you created? Are your employees too proud, too brave or perhaps too scared of consequences, to call in fatigued?

When was the last time a pilot or mechanic called to say they were too tired to come to work?

If the answer is “never,” is that good news or bad news?

If people never do, is this because they aren’t tired, or is it because the culture is not there for them to feel comfortable doing the right thing?

To return to the proposed elements of the RACCA Safety Initiatives, again, I think the notion of developing a safety initiative is a very good idea.

I hope that you will kick it around, chew on it, debate it, and modify it, if necessary, to meet your needs.

And I hope you will embrace it and most importantly, implement whatever you agree on.

Geoffrey Gallup said yesterday that this safety initiative is to “educate and motivate RACCA members to do something tangible to enhance safety.” I certainly believe it can do that.

If I may, I’d like to take speaker’s prerogative and suggest one addition. I feel that each of these items, in themselves, are very good. But, I feel that there should be something to tie it all together.

What is the glue, the mortar, that holds all of this together?

This past September, Nick Sabatini, FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, testified to Congress concerning aviation safety.

He stated: “To continue to improve aviation safety we must use every tool at our disposal. The most effective way to improve safety is through Safety Management Systems. SMS enables organizations to identify and manage risk far better than before. With this formalized approach, we can identify issues, fix them, and ensure they stay fixed.”

The Safety Board also feels that Safety Management Systems or SMS are important. In January, in concluding our investigation of a large regional airline, the Safety Board issued a Safety Recommendation that called for the FAA to require that all Part 121 operators establish SMS programs.

In our recommendation letter to the FAA, we stated that SMS incorporates proactive safety methods for operators to identify hazards, mitigate risks, and monitor the extent that the operators are meeting their objectives.

I’ll admit to you that a lot of people are running around these days clamoring for SMS, and frankly, I suspect that a lot of people don’t have a clue how to implement it.

I don’t have all the answers, but I can say that the backbone of SMS is the establishment and maintenance of a safety culture.

I think the safety culture and implementing SMS are the elements that could tie your safety initiatives into one concise, neat and very valuable package for your industry.

I hope that you will be able to join us later this morning so that I can give you some practical ways to develop and implement a safety culture in the regional cargo business.

I applaud the great effort that you have made by coming together and I challenge you to keep up this important work.

Thank you and safe flying!