Chairman Rockefeller's Remarks on Aviation Safety: Oversight of FAA Safety Initiatives

December 10, 2009

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—In discussions about aviation safety, it is often cited that the United States has the safest airline industry in the world. That fact is statistically correct – numbers do not lie. But sometimes they do not tell the whole truth. And, this fact offers no comfort to families of the victims of airline accidents.

Numbers alone do not reassure me that our nation’s aviation system is as safe as it could be.

Nor do I believe, after the series of safety lapses we have seen over the last year, that statistics alone will reassure the millions of Americans who take to the skies everyday.

During this holiday season millions will fly far and wide to spend time with family and friends. The last thing they should be worrying about is their own safety.

Over the last several months, the issue of pilot training and fatigue has dominated the safety discussion – and rightly so. They are important issues that need the FAA’s and industry’s immediate attention.

I believe that revisions to flight time and duty limitations are long overdue. There is simply no excuse for past failures in this area. Frankly, it is embarrassing, and I expect the FAA to make progress on it in the near future.

Mr. Babbitt, when we first met, I told you that you have one of the hardest jobs in Washington. After your first year on the job, I believe you would agree with me.

I know that you are committed to continuously improving the safety of our nation’s aviation system, and, just as importantly, changing the way the FAA addresses safety issues. I am pleased that under your leadership the FAA is being proactive, not reactive, when it comes to safety.

As you know, safety issues cannot be addressed in isolation. They are woven into every aspect of the agency’s mission from aircraft certification, to air traffic control, and airport development.

Just as the agency is rightly focused on pilot issues, it must also remain as vigilant on other safety priorities – the oversight of airlines, reducing runway incursions, and air traffic controller staffing issues. I am pleased that the FAA is making progress in each of these areas.

But, as I have said, having the safest system in the world does not mean it is safe enough.

We are reminded far too often about the fragility of our aviation system – a system dependent on antiquated technology and human factors we still don’t fully understand.

Over the last several years, modernizing our nation’s air traffic control system has been a priority for me and the Members of the Committee.

The benefits of modernization are often described in terms of economic efficiency. There is no question that is true, but the strongest case for modernization is that it will make our system safer.

The Next Generation Air Traffic Control System has clear technological benefits including more precise flight paths and greater situational awareness for pilots.

That is why it is even more critical that the Senate move on a FAA Reauthorization bill early next year.

Safety is clearly the top priority for everyone in aviation. I know the FAA and the industry take the proper action 99% of the time when it comes to safety. But, that is not good enough. As we know all too well, the margins for error in aviation are far too small. It is that one percent that can lead to tragedy.

At the moment, our aviation system is fragile. We all need to work together to make sure we maintain it, strengthen it, and sustain it as the world’s finest.

I look forward to working with you to achieve that goal.