Elected Officials Must Not Damage Aviation’s Culture Of Safety

U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) is reportedly drafting legislation, which in potential future federal government shutdowns, would carve out FAA, preventing its employees from being furloughed or working without pay. This would ensure that commercial aviation’s vital safety culture is preserved and that critical safety margins are maintained. The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) enthusiastically endorses and applauds chairman DeFazio’s legislative initiative.

Most political and aviation industry observers believe that there is little appetite for a new government shutdown come February 15; but anything is possible. In a January 10 letter to the U.S. Administration and Congress, more than 30 travel and aviation industry organizations documented the serious adverse impacts that the government shutdown was having on workers, industry oversight and airline operations. (See https://btcnews.co/2HsbSd4.)

In the weeks after that letter was transmitted, the negative impacts of the shutdown on the aviation industry worsened, with flights at major airports across the nation delayed because of FAA staffing shortages.

William J. McGee, author of Attention All Passengers, told me, “We still don’t know the long-term effects of not having any FAA front-line inspectors on the job for 35 days, and we may not know for months or even years to come. The airlines were self-policing for more than a month.”

“And while every U.S. carrier outsources some or even most of its aircraft maintenance, there were no visits by the FAA to foreign repair stations. Even after the partial recall, there was no travel budget for FAA inspectors. When all employees finally returned to work on January 28th, we were in a situation that we simply have never been in since the Civil Aeronautics Authority Act of 1938. Some front-line FAA inspectors tell me it will take months just to catch up on determining what they missed.”

However, the most pernicious effect of the shutdown was the shameful, high-profile example and lack of true leadership from elected officials in Washington. Aviation industry operations are built on an absolute culture of safety above all else – a set of disciplines, perceptions and values – coupled with a philosophy and practice of wide safety margins.

Understaffing, worker financial stress and deteriorating morale narrow those safety margins. For example, we do not want an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare – where 124 aircraft land per hour – worried and distracted about how bills will be paid.

The damaging message that the administration and Congress sent after 35 days of a shutdown is that the many decades of building a sound and necessary aviation safety culture is not respected and doesn’t matter. Elected officials made a dangerous, reckless impact on this critical culture.

One of the foremost principles in sustaining a superior safety culture is accountability. In the case of this past shutdown, the White House and Congress would have been rightfully held 100% accountable had any safety issues surfaced as a result of the shutdown’s impacts.

Since the beginnings of commercial aviation, the U.S. has set the gold standard in safety culture, operations and oversight. Countries all over the world have respected and followed the lead of the FAA in all manner of decisions, policies and practices, greatly enhancing global aviation safety.

There is little doubt that U.S. leadership was diminished in the view of foreign aviation regulatory authorities, a diminishment that has negative implications for Americans transiting the global aviation system.

BTC urges the successful passage of chairman DeFazio’s legislative initiative.

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Mitchell is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations. Mitchell worked for CIGNA Corp. for 12 years where as Vice President, Human Resources and Services. With support from CIGNA Corporation and 16 other major corporations, Mitchell founded the Business Travel Contractors Corporation (BTCC) in 1994 as a corporate buying group to advance fundamental reforms to the airline industry distribution system. The broad industry shift to net airfares and travel agency fee-based pricing during the 1990s are initiatives BTCC advanced. In 1996, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) was formed as an advocacy organization to represent the interests of corporate buyers of business travel services. As BTC chairman, Mitchell writes and speaks on airline competition, travel distribution issues and aviation system security; he frequently testifies before Congress. Additionally, BTC publishes Travelogue in 80 countries and advises major organizations in a variety of areas. Mitchell was recognized by Business Travel News as one of the 25 most influential industry executives for 1994, 1996 and 1997 and was designated Man of the Year in 1998 by the Commercial Travelers Association and Person of The Year for 1998 and 1999 by Travel Agent Magazine.

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