DOT and ALPA: Partnering to Improve Safety

By Elaine L. Chao, Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation

The United States sets the benchmark for aviation safety thanks in large part to the innovative approach we continue to take—partnerships and the resulting cooperation we’ve established with industry stakeholders. Business, labor, and government all work together in this endeavor, recognizing that each has an important role to play in minimizing risks within our nation’s air transportation system.

In its day-to-day operations, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) number one priority must be safety. It’s the foundation for everything we do, and it’s especially true for aviation. Our other top priorities include rebuilding and refurbishing the nation’s infrastructure to promote the growth of our domestic economy and preparing for the future by engaging new and emerging technologies to address safety, security, and privacy without hampering innovation. These organizational focuses have helped us achieve our remarkable safety record, but industry engagement is the key to our achievements.

As DOT secretary, I fly quite a bit. And I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that our nation’s highly trained airline pilots have a strong commitment to safety. Like the DOT, airline pilots understand that aviation safety is a shared pursuit and that our combined expertise and resources are greater than the sum of our parts. Working together is the best way for us to confront and overcome industry challenges.

One such threat is posed by the air carriage of lithium batteries, dangerous goods that can present a safety risk if not properly stored in accordance with regulations. To help address this concern, ALPA approached the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to request that the DOT initiate a public-awareness campaign. PHMSA responded by establishing the “Check the Box” initiative to prevent serious incidents and accidents by increasing public awareness. The DOT proudly supports this program with training, information, events, conferences, and a dedicated website.

As I recently reported to ALPA members during the Air Safety Forum, the number of drone encounters with aircraft is on the rise. An FAA database lists 8,026 incidents since November 2014, including 2,308 encounters in 2018 alone. The DOT has responded by establishing programs that test drones in a variety of environments under restricted conditions, advancing drone airspace management, and implementing remote drone identification.

ALPA recognizes the importance of regulating drone operations to ensure that these transports are safely integrated into the national airspace system without negatively impacting the aviation industry’s extraordinary safety record. In fact, Capt. DePete is addressing this matter directly as a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee.

Another development we’re closely monitoring is America’s growing commercial space sector and how recent aerospace industry entrants can be safely integrated into the national airspace. Reusable rockets and air launch systems have fostered the growth of this segment of the industry. The United States went from 23 commercial launches in 2017 to 33 in 2018. As a result, the DOT is developing the Space Data Integrator program to help ensure that launches cause minimal disruption to commercial airspace. Again, the DOT’s priority is that safety must come first.

However, not all safety developments take place in the air. Aviation infrastructure is being made safer thanks to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which contained several mandates that have serious safety implications. These include ALPA priorities such as installing secondary cockpit barriers, continued funding of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, and maintaining first officer qualification, training, and experience requirements.

These and many other aviation safety issues and concerns were discussed at length at ALPA’s Air Safety Forum, an event that represents one more opportunity for the aviation community to network and share information. Your Association has long been among the most valued, reliable, and important partners in helping my organization achieve it safety mission.

By working together, the DOT and ALPA, along with other aviation stakeholders, have established a beneficial partnership because all involved are an integral part of the decision-making process. This collaboration will help ensure that our country remains the global leader in aviation innovation moving forward.

This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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