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Opening Remarks To the Aviation Directors Roundtable, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC

It is a real pleasure to be here with the leaders of corporate aviation.

I know several of you and in fact, when I was conducting safety seminars a few years ago, several of you were gracious enough to invite me into your departments. I think it got to the point where I was actually enjoying doing those seminars even more than I was flying, and I found that my real passion was with helping others with safety.

Speaking of passion, somewhere in the confirmation process someone asked me, “Robert, why do you want to be on the NTSB?” It is certainly a fair question and one that I could answer with one word – passion.

I know the passion is there but I have never worried too much about where it came from or why it is there. I just know it is there. It gets me up in the morning and it keeps me going into the day.

Truly, I believe the work we are doing does save lives. And that, in itself, is exciting.

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.

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.

A commitment that I made when I came to the Board 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. I work long hours and I spend a lot of time getting ready for board meetings,

You know the NTSB as an aircraft accident investigation agency. We are, but we also investigate selected rail, marine, highway accidents, as well as pipeline accidents and those involving transportation of hazardous materials.

Our five Board Members are appointed by President with advice and consent of Senate.

As Board Members, we are not there to lead investigations, but rather our role is to take a board look at the complex issues surrounding transportation safety issues.

As you may know, the NTSB uses a party system, whereby we designate parties who can provide technical expertise to our investigation. I strongly encourage you to know what is involved with being a party member.

Since you are top-level aviation managers with some of the world’s largest corporate flight departments, allow me to give you my perspective of how I looked at things when I was manager of aviation for a Fortune 500 flight department.

Last night I found the strategic plan that we developed at that company, and it may sound somewhat familiar to yours: “The Aviation Department provides safe, reliable, and cost-effective on-demand air transportation services.  We offer this service as a business tool for the convenience, comfort and security of our people.”

Notice that I said “business tool.” I felt that we must provide value for the company – such significant value that if there is a change of management or financial bad times – the board of directors of the company would view the aviation department as being so valuable that they couldn’t possibly shut it down. I strongly felt that if we couldn’t provide value for the company, then we didn’t need an aviation department in the first place.

Furthermore, 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 find a way to ensure that our pilots were as well trained and proficient as airline pilots. If the airlines carried defibrillators, then we needed to provide that level of protection for our occupants. 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. 

You are the leaders of corporate aviation. So, what is leadership? One simple definition that I have found is this one, from best-selling author John Maxwell: “Leadership is about influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.” 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. 

So, I want to you think of this. Not now, but in the coming weeks: Are you providing the absolute best safety leadership that your company deserves?

I know this afternoon you will visit the NTSB’s Training Center. As you approach the training center, pause and look at the plaque at the building’s 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.

I challenge you to continue working to raise the safety bar.

I am very proud and honored to have been selected to serve our industry, our profession and, 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 gathered here to improve our industry.

I think we all share the passion.

Keep up the good work. Thank you very much.