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Opening Remarks Before The NATA Aviation Business Roundtable, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
National Air Transportation Association, NATA Aviation Business Roundtable, Washington, DC

Good morning. On behalf of Member Hersman and myself, thank you for inviting us to visit with you today.  It is a pleasure to be amongst this group of aviation business leaders.

I understand this is to be an interactive session, but before we get started with addressing your questions, let me say that I don’t think our two organizations have diabolically opposing viewpoints regarding safety. Jim, I was there in June when you testified to Congress about the NTSB’s Most Wanted List. We appreciate the support that you have provided on those issues that we view to be important. We have meet with your staff and are pleased that NATA is genuinely interested in raising the safety bar for those in your profession.

Let me take a few minutes to provide a perspective on how members of the Safety Board have recently come to view the topic of equivalent level of safety.

Whether you are operating under Part 91, Part 91 Subpart K, Part 121, or 135, I hope you’ll agree that when someone boards one of your aircraft, that person has the expectation that the aircraft will be managed, operated and maintained in accordance certain high standards.

I mention this because we sometimes hear from Part 91 or Part 135 operators that it is difficult or impossible to keep up with the growing demands imposed upon them by the narrowing of guidelines and regulations between them and Part 121 operators. We understand that at times, this is difficult, costly, and may even seem unreasonable. 

But, what we are talking about here is providing an equivalent level of safety. When I was running a Part 91 flight department for a Fortune 500 company, I firmly believed that we had to be as good as – actually better than – our competition. And, I viewed our competition as airlines, fractional and charter operators, and other modes of transportation. Not only did our schedules have to be better, but we had to provide better customer service and at least an equivalent level of safety. If the airlines trained twice a year, then we needed to do so, also. If the airlines carried defibrillators, then we needed to have them onboard, too. If a new airline captain had to be on “high minimums,” then we needed to ensure that we met or exceeded that level of safety. 

Do I believe that a person flying his buddies in a Cessna 172 on a Sunday afternoon needs to meet the same standards as the airlines? Of course not. But, when we exchange money for something that is presented as or perceived to be a professionally provided service, then we have an implicit contract that those services will be provided with a higher standard of care.

To illustrate my point, take the Board’s recent safety recommendations stemming from the Southwest Airlines runway overrun accident at Chicago’s Midway. We issued recommendations that all Part 121, 135 and 91 Subpart K operators add a 15 percent safety margin when performing landing distance calculations.

You may worry that these recommendations will prevent you from landing at certain airports with short runways, contaminated with snow, ice, or standing water, and will significantly affect your winter operations. And above all, you may be asking why the Safety Board issued these recommendations for Parts 91 Subpart K and 135 operators when the accident involved a Part 121 air carrier. All ligament questions.  

At the end of the day it comes down to ensuring an equivalent level of safety. Your clients are paying to use your services and with that they expect the flight crew to be as rigorously trained, and aircraft to be maintained and operated in a fashion that it is every bit as safe, if not more safe, than those of Part 121 operators.

Unfortunately, accident data indicate this is not always the case. While corporate jets flown by professional crews under Part 91 and fractional operators have accident rates that are comparable to scheduled air carriers, the accident rate for Part 135 operators has consistently been higher.

In November 2004, we investigated a Gulfstream GIII accident at Houston, TX. This flight was on a repositioning flight from Dallas to Houston Hobby under Part 91, traveling to pick up Former President George H.W. Bush where it would then become a Part 135 flight. Our investigation of this CFIT accident found there were numerous deviations from standard operating procedures, including the failure to fully brief the approach, verify navigational data, and making the required callouts. 

A few days later we had the Canadair CL-600 accident at Montrose, Colorado. The crew failed to de-ice, as required, and proceeded to attempt a take-off with snow on wings. Once again - the crew’s failure to adhere to standard operating procedures. But, we also noted ineffective training for winter weather operations and CRM. 

About two months later, there was the runway overrun accident at Teterboro involving a Challenger operated by Platinum Jet. The crew failed to ensure that the aircraft was within its prescribed weight and balance limits, and the first officer did not have the required training and qualifications to be on that flight. And, of course, this is where the issue of operational control raised its ugly head.

During the board meeting for that accident, the Board chided the flight crew for their lack of professionalism.  However, we also pointed out that the operator has a responsibility to establish a culture of safety, and, in this accident, we saw that there was a culture of non-compliance. There were widespread gaps, omissions, and procedural deviations.  Not only had the company provided the crews with several variations of the weight and balance data, the crews routinely falsified weight and balance documents. 

As you see, a common thread woven throughout these accidents is failure to either have well defined procedures, or failure to ensure that what is written is actually followed. We are seeing an alarming “normalization of deviance,” where deviations occur with such frequency that the deviation becomes the norm.

NATA is the “voice of aviation business,” and the people around this table today are certainly the leaders of the aviation business. “Leadership is about influence. Nothing more. Nothing less,” says best-selling author John Maxwell.

So, if leadership is about influence, how are you using your leadership to influence safety? As aviation leaders, you not only have the ability to influence safety, but you have the obligation to do so, as well. 

I applaud the efforts of NATA to create the Air Charter Safety Foundation. I applaud the efforts of NATA to develop an air charter safety management system (SMS) designed to improve charter safety by creating a more standardized mode of operation. I applaud NATA for its work on Safety First SMS, designed to reduce ground handling accidents by half over the next five years.

But, as good as these programs are, safety is more than just programs or checking boxes – it is a way of doing business.  The backbone of an SMS program is safety culture.  I firmly believe that a major responsibility of management is to establish and maintain a safety culture, and this is the key to equivalent level of safety. 

This is where we look to you, as the leaders in the aviation industry, to use your influence. Most often, it is those in an industry themselves – in this case, you, the members of NATA – who are in the best position to make improvements that will increase the safety of the industry and establish a universal safety culture in the least costly and most effective way.

I am glad to see that in February, the Air Charter Safety Foundation will be holding a two-day symposium on developing a healthy safety culture.  I hope you can personally be there – you personally – and not just one of your assistants - to demonstrate your genuine commitment to establishing such a culture.

This workshop will be held at the NTSB’s Training Center, and as you enter the training center, I hope you’ll pause and take a moment to look at the plaque at the entrance. Etched in the glass, it 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. Our ultimate goal is to improve transportation safety. I know you are committed to the same goal.

We at the Safety Board encourage you to continue your quest. We challenge you to keep working to raise the bar, to providing an equivalent level of safety.

Thank you very much. I’ll now turn it over to my colleague, Honorable Debbie Hersman.