Preliminary Report: New DOT chief focuses on system modernization

 - December 11, 2006, 6:18 AM

While safety is at the top of her list of priorities, new Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told the third annual FAA International Aviation Safety Forum early last month that President Bush has charged her with modernizing the U.S. ATC system, “including new approaches to funding to deal with our aging infrastructure.”

Peters said that annual passenger volumes in the U.S. are racing to the one billion mark within the decade, and manufacturers are preparing to deliver thousands of new very light jets (VLJs), which will usher in the largest increase in air traffic since the 1960s.

“During my swearing-in ceremony, President Bush noted that our nation is fast outgrowing our aviation capacity,” Peters said. “He charged me with modernizing our airports and our air traffic control system to meet growing demand. And we are making steady progress.”

Unparalleled Record
Despite this growth, the U.S. has enjoyed an unparalleled safety record. “Prior to [the August regional-jet crash in Lexington, Ky.], a record 2.7 billion passengers flew without a single on-board fatality on American commercial flights,” Peters told the nearly 500 attendees. “And we are continuing to raise the bar.”

According to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, the commercial aviation accident rate in the U.S. is about two fatal accidents for every 10 million takeoffs. Meanwhile, forecasts say traffic will double or triple over the next 10 to 20 years.
“Is it acceptable to us, or the flying public, if the number of accidents doubles or triples as well?” she asked. “I don’t think so.” The solution, she said, is safety management systems (SMS), which identify hazards, assess the related risk, determine the best ways to intervene and then measure the effectiveness of the actions.

“The forensic approach got us largely to where we are, and that’s the world standard for safety–the best of the best,” Blakey said. “But to get to the next level, we need to move beyond forensics to data analysis. From an analysis of what has happened to an analysis of what the data shows might happen with a certain degree of probability.”

With passenger numbers climbing to more than a billion by 2015, the possibility of 5,000 VLJs operating in the National Airspace System by 2016, fractional ownership fleets exceeding those of some U.S. airlines and the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles, another approach has to be adopted, said Blakey, who has previously served as chairman of the NTSB and administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Managing Risk

“It comes down to managing risk,” she said. “You have to know the hazards, the consequences of what can hurt us. Then you must assess the likelihood that it will happen, the risk. And then, of course, the severity.” The purpose of an SMS is to provide a systematic way to eliminate, mitigate or manage risk and to provide assurance that those actions are effective, she added.

Peters noted that worldwide, the rate of major aviation accidents decreased by 25 percent in the period between 2001 and 2005, compared to the previous five-year period. “And even with the recent crashes [in Brazil and Nigeria], 2006 is shaping up to be the safest year ever in aviation around the globe,” she said.

“Aviation safety, however, is not a charge that can be answered by any one manufacturer–or for that matter by any one airline or by any single country,” said Peters. “And when something goes wrong, the implications affect us all.”

The future of aviation safety hinges on the sharing of information, according to Blakey, and impediments that would prohibit sharing must be removed. She said that the International Civil Aviation Organization reports that “lack of full and open reporting continues to pose a considerable barrier to further safety progress in many areas.

“Let’s face it: there’s no place for fear in safety,” she said. “We need to instill a mindset…that revolves around a safety culture. Continuous efforts on safety improvements must come from lessons learned.”