When Michael Huerta, administrator of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said in March that “we need to make aviation even safer by being smarter about how we do safety,” my ears perked up slightly. I was attending the Federal Aerospace Forecast Conference in Washington, organized by the American Association of Airport Executives, and I didn’t expect to hear much talk about safety. I was there for the numbers, which Huerta addressed, but he also touched on the first of FAA’s four strategic priorities: “Make aviation safer and smarter.”
I began scribbling notes a little faster when Huerta started talking about the need to focus on risk-based decision making and relying on safety data input by the people who work in the system — such as the flight crews, controllers, dispatchers, cabin crews, mechanics and specialists within manufacturers and airports. “When you’re faced with a system in which commercial fatalities are the rarest of the rare events, moving forward with safety management systems is the right thing to do,” he said. “Instead of waiting for accidents, we’re studying data, looking for emerging trends [and] identifying the hazards before they become an accident.”
But what really caught my attention, and prompted me to request a copy of the speech to make sure I had captured it accurately in my notes, was when Huerta said that FAA is “not tip-toeing into this.” The administrator said FAA is pushing to decrease the accident risk and the commercial fatal accident rate, and to prioritize its resources where it sees the risk. “Ultimately, I expect us to develop a new safety oversight model that prioritizes safety inspection efforts based on risk,” he said. “This model will provide us with the tools to consider stopping certain oversight activities for known system operators that have strong safety management systems and safety management cultures.”
New oversight models don’t come along every day. As the administrator said, this is a bold step. Whether it is the right step, only time will tell, but in an era of budget and resource uncertainty, putting your resources where they can do the most good makes sense. A key to success here will be working with system operators that truly do have the strongest of safety cultures and safety management systems. Persuading the public that it is okay to stop certain oversight activities for some operators, no matter how well regarded, will be a tough sell.
Administrator Huerta went on to say that FAA historically has provided “all services to all people in many different locations with little differentiation. We are increasingly being asked to do more and do it with less. It’s time for us to have a robust discussion about what services the FAA should be providing and what we might be able to stop doing or do differently through innovative business methods and new technologies.”
Stay tuned. This could get interesting.