Partnering on Safety

By Howard “Skip” Elliott, Administrator, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Shortly after I assumed the position of administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), I had the opportunity to talk with ALPA at a meeting between Capt. Tim Canoll and Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. We discussed how PHMSA would approach its recently reassigned duties as a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Dangerous Goods Panel. ALPA’s focus on airline safety is razor sharp, and it’s been a pleasure working with so many dedicated professionals on enhancing PHMSA–ALPA collaboration and addressing the risks posed by the air transport of undeclared dangerous goods.

One of the many good recommendations that emerged from discussions with ALPA is the need to quickly provide greater industry and public awareness about the hazards associated with undeclared and improperly packaged hazardous materials.

At ALPA’s recent Air Safety Forum, I was pleased to announce the rollout of an important new safety awareness initiative called “Check the Box” to address these shortcomings (see Check the Box for Hazmat). Through this new campaign, we hope to achieve greater public and industry awareness of common household items that are classified as hazardous materials and how to safely ship them through education—including new and dedicated content on our PHMA website, via social media, and at engagement events throughout the country.

Cruising altitude certainly is not the place to discover that you’re transporting dangerous goods. Shipping dangerous goods without proper designation, packaging, and handling instructions puts peoples’ lives at risk.

One of PHMSA’s most consistent and important messages is that achieving zero incidents isn’t impossible. Our success lies at a very thin margin. But airline safety performance illustrates that an even higher safety success rate can be attained.

There are a number of very safe transportation enterprises—such as pipeline and rail—where the risk is also heightened by the addition of hazardous materials, but the airline industry has a safety record that exceeds all other modes of transportation.

As a longtime railroader, making the leap from the bulkiness of the freight rail industry to the sleekness of the airline industry wasn’t something I’d personally contemplated, although I had witnessed my colleague and former railroader Oscar Munoz, now the CEO of United Airlines, make that transition a few years ago.

All of us share a strong common bond with safety. And from what I’ve witnessed, safety is just as relevant for the engineer at the throttle of a freight train pulling 200 rail cars as it is for the pilot at the controls of an airliner carrying 200 passengers or packages.

It makes perfect sense that a safety administrator should gravitate toward pilots. Certainly, to some, it seems counterintuitive that traveling through the air at several hundred miles per hour, tens of thousands of feet high, in a pressurized tube, is the safest mode of transportation. But it is. Statistically, it’s about 100 times safer than traveling by car.

That wouldn’t be the case if not for the expertise, the dedication, and the commitment to safety of the airline industry workforce. Airline transportation professionals are clear leaders in the pursuit of both safety awareness and innovation in general, and more specifically when it includes the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials.

This leadership and dedication are why PHMSA, as the only U.S. safety agency charged with maintaining hazardous materials safety across all transportation modes, values working closely with and learning from organizations like ALPA.

I know there are many good reasons why the aviation community is considered the zenith of safety and that ALPA will help get the Check the Box safety awareness initiative off the ground. This important new safety campaign wouldn’t have become a reality if not for ALPA and your absolute commitment to improving safety. I’m confident that together, we’ll find many other ways to collaborate that can yield tangible safety benefits and help close glaring gaps in safety protocols.

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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