Guest Commentary: The Real Deal

By Peggy Gilligan, FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety

ALPA is the real deal.

When it comes to getting the job done and getting it done well, the Air Line Pilots Association has long been known as a go-to group—not just for safety and efficiency, but for forward thinking as well.

I’m often asked how the system has gotten to be so safe. The answer is simple: partnership got us to where we are. And one of our stronger partners is ALPA.

Think back to the 1980s and the 1990s. Accidents were occurring at a rate that was unraveling public confidence one headline at a time. The ValuJet crash in the Everglades and TWA Flight 800 over Long Island are still vivid for many of us. The question was always the same—Is aviation safe enough? No one liked the answer.

Not only were we dealing with a breach of safety protocol, we were dealing with the perception we had breached the public’s trust in us. When the White House and Congress responded to the public outcry, they did so without equivocation: cut the fatal accident rate by 80 percent. At the time, I had real doubts we could do it. But we did, and ALPA was right at the front of the line. It took a new way of thinking on everyone’s part.

As safety professionals, we know that forensics and analysis of past events will take us only so far. We had eliminated just about all of the common types of accidents. The only path forward would come from analyzing data and reducing risk before something went wrong.

Getting that data required trust—and partnership—and the will to try out a new model of risk mitigation and accident prevention.

The foundation came about with FOQA and ASAP. When you get inputs from 53,000 highly trained, highly skilled industry professionals—two-thirds from airlines in the U.S., one-third from just north of the border in Canada—you get a data stream that paints a vivid picture. ALPA has nearly 400 representatives on safety committees. That’s impressive. Together, air carriers and the government suddenly gain insight into millions of operations and into potential safety issues. Trends that once were obscured from view suddenly begin to emerge. Risks and errors get put under the microscope, and, suddenly, we have clarity of what we need to prevent.

ALPA has been a key player in the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program. This program partners with the Commercial Aviation Safety Team to develop safety enhancements, but the partnership with organizations like yours gives it the spark to make these enhancements possible.

Working with ALPA, airlines, and manufacturers, we have put TAWS in place, virtually eliminating the risk of CFIT events in the U.S. Because of your commitment to excellence, we’ve made safety enhancements that target technology, procedures, and training. They’ve driven a significant reduction in risk of loss-of-control accidents. We’ve proactively reduced the risk of midair collisions by mitigating errors on standard terminal arrival routes and RNAV departures.

ALPA has been a partner in developing enhancements involving runway safety, approach and landing, weather, turbulence, icing, maintenance, and uncontained engine failures.

These successes show that Safety Management Systems work. They also gave birth to what has become a new philosophy on compliance, one that stresses compliance over enforcement. We want compliant and safe certificate holders, not operators that make an inadvertent mistake and then hide it because they’re afraid. That’s why we’ve moved from gotcha to “let’s fix this together.

All of this leads us to what may be the most important point of all. The Commercial Aviation Safety Team aims to reduce the U.S. commercial aircraft fatality rate by 50 percent from 2010 to 2025. Unlike the concern I felt about safety goals in the 1990s, I’m confident that we’ll reach this one. That’s a confidence based on the foundation of partnership that ALPA has helped to establish and solidify with industry. Happy 85th anniversary, ALPA. You always find a way to make cooperation work.

Peggy Gilligan has been the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety since 2009. An attorney, she has been a strong advocate for voluntary data sharing, risk-based decision-making, and line pilots.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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