Rockefeller Remarks on Commercial Airline Safety Oversight

March 20, 2012

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—Safety has always been the principal goal of the aviation community, and my primary focus since I joined the Commerce Committee more than 20 years ago.  Every member of the aviation community begins their workday focused first and foremost on safety.  For commercial airline and federal employees—from the pilots, flight attendants and the air traffic controllers, to the mechanics and the technicians, safety is paramount throughout their daily work.  And this emphasis has paid off—the last U.S. fatal passenger accident was February 12, 2009.  The past few years have been the safest in the history of the U.S. aviation industry.  The reason we have been successful is that we are constantly striving to make even the smallest safety improvements.  It is a continual effort, and that is why we are here today. 

Just over three years ago, the tragic accident of Colgan Flight 3407 occurred outside of Buffalo, New York.  It took the lives of 50 people, and devastated the families and friends of the victims.  The investigation of Flight 3407 revealed serious safety lapses in the national air transportation system.  Some of these issues were all too clear in hindsight.  Pilot flight and duty time regulations had not been updated in decades, despite previous efforts to address obvious weaknesses.  Other issues have developed as a result of fundamental changes in technology.  The development of training requirements years ago could not account for procedures to operate “stick pushers” because they did not exist—it is still a relatively new feature and only exists on a few types of aircraft.

To address the multiple safety concerns that were highlighted in Congressional hearings, Congress passed the “Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.”  It included provisions to improve pilot training, implement Safety Management Systems (SMS), update pilot flight and duty time regulations, and promote better reporting of safety issues. 

Overall, the FAA’s progress in meeting the goals of the “Safety Act” has been positive.  The requirements and timeframes mandated by the legislation are ambitious and demanding, and some in the industry were concerned the agency may have been set up for failure.  To the FAA’s credit, however, they have fulfilled many of the provisions mandated by the “Safety Act.”  I think it is fair to say that the public has been impressed with how much the FAA has accomplished in just 17 months.

Still, much work remains to be completed by both the agency and the industry.  Some critical deadlines have been missed, particularly the rulemaking on revising pilot training standards.  Even with the issuance of new regulations, the FAA and the industry will have to work hard to make certain they are implemented properly.  There has also been controversy regarding the cargo industry’s exemption from the new flight and duty rules that the FAA finalized in December. 

I want to hear from both the FAA and the aviation industry on what they are doing to work together to resolve the remaining issues, fully implement the “Safety Act” and finish the job.  Finally, I want to make sure we do not lose sight of the broader picture of aviation safety.  Although I believe the implementation of the “Safety Act” is critical to improving the state of airline safety, it is part of a larger, comprehensive safety system that must be managed carefully.

In the past few years we have witnessed other safety failures in our aviation system.  Issues have been identified regarding the oversight of airline maintenance, lapses by air traffic controllers, runway incursions, and operational errors.  The FAA took quick action to address problems in all these areas, and Congress followed up with additional measures in the FAA reauthorization bill that recently passed.  I am closely following the agency’s efforts to address these issues and their broader efforts to improve the safety of the air transportation system.

I would like to thank the witnesses for testifying today, and I look forward to hearing your perspectives on these issues.