FAA ADMINISTRATOR’S CLOSING REMARKS POSES PUZZLING QUESTIONS ABOUT AVIATION SAFETY REGIME

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“The Ever-Changing World of Aviation” Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
August 9, 2012
ALPA Safety Forum

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Acting Administrator Huerta delivered a thoughtful and eloquent speech at the ALPA Safety Forum. His introductory paragraph introduced the theme of his talk and did so with a wonderful quote from President John F. Kennedy:

“For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

That preface allowed the Administrator to make his own variation on the JFK statement by saying:

“Kennedy’s statement could not be more applicable than today – we are in the midst of revolutionary change. You’ve heard about many new developments in safety, airline crew health, fatigue management and unmanned aircraft systems.”

The talk to the pilots then discussed, in detail, NextGen, new pilot training scenarios, new rest concepts, the FAA’s response to UAVs and the challenges to the FAA staff that tight budgets and increased responsibilities pose. None of these pronouncements were particularly revealing and such reticence is certainly justified as Mr. Huerta’s nomination for a 5 year term as the FAA chief sits in the Senate. Now is not the time to say something dramatic while 100 wise, wily members of that august body awaits a chance to vote yea or nay on his nomination for the top aviation safety job in the world.

Deep into his speech, as he begins to pick up his papers to head back to 800 Independence Avenue, the Administrator’s “Ever Changing World of Aviation” text included this little kernel of wisdom:

“I want to promote a shared responsibility for safety oversight. Both industry and government are responsible for ensuring that safety measures are fully met.”

This statement is either incredibly obvious or amazingly cryptic. The concept of the regulated sharing the burden is so often repeated by Secretaries, Administrators and all levels of FAA staff that this sentence as to constitute a self evident truth. Why repeat words that must be etched somewhere over the entrance of the FAA headquarters?

Is the obtuse message in the verb “promote”? Is Mr. Huerta saying that both the FAA and the industry joint responsibility is a dying concept and his leadership needs to be asserted to restore this central concept to the aviation regulatory rubric? If these two short sentences at the close of his speech are intended to convey a subtle message of the current state of regulatory relations is lacking, these words are really a major admission/condemnation.

Does he believe that the certificate holders do not take their duties with adequate intensity? Does he intend that these words convey uncertainty as to the way in which his 15,000 safety professionals handle their responsibilities? Another fair estimate of Mr. Huerta’s intent may be that both the regulated and the regulator need to improve their joint efforts, to communicate better and to reduce the antagonism that exists when the inspector and the industry representative meet to address the FARs.

The opening Kennedy quote set the stage for a message of change. Mr. Huerta’s closing comments, thus, seem to point his audience to a course of his intended new path. The Administrator’s above quoted language is susceptible of many interpretations. That ambiguity creates an air of useful tension. The gray nature of his carefully chosen words demand clarity in the same way nature abhors a vacuum. The aviation regulatory sphere is colored in the absolutes of black and white; this shading causes the people who work in this field to inquire—

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THESE TWO SENTENCES, MR. ADMINISTRATOR?

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