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American Association of Airport Executives 84th Annual Conference and Exposition "Preparation and Professionalism" Phoenix, AZ
Deborah A. P. Hersman
American Association of Airport Executives 84th Annual Conference and Exposition "Preparation and Professionalism" Phoenix, AZ

I'm delighted to be here today with so many people who do so much for aviation and our nation. We hear a lot about airports being economic engines, drivers of economic growth. Yes, airports are that, for sure, but they - you - are so much more. Airports are the departure points ... where the journey begins and where it ends.

But more than anything, you are the symbol of aviation in your community.

An airport is often a person's first aviation experience - whether it's attending an air show, taking a first flight, or a participating in special event, like what we have in Northern Virginia - the annual Dulles Day Plane Pull.

Big airports are their own cities, with eight million stories, just like the line from that old TV show - farewells, reunions, and literal arrivals, like the child born at BWI last year.

And smaller airports are the hub of their communities - connecting their residents economically and socially with the rest of the country.

Yet, you are all members of the greater aviation community and do so much to contribute to aviation safety - through your preparation and professionalism.

And, that is what I want to talk about today - about accident investigation and how important preparation and professionalism are to prevention and response at your airport.

Last week, the NTSB released the 2011 U.S. aviation safety statistics. The good news is that airlines continue to enjoy a strong safety record. For the second year in a row, there were no fatal accidents involving scheduled domestic Part 121 air carriers or scheduled Part 135 commuter operations.

The bad news is that overall, civil aviation accidents (most involving GA aircraft), rose by 50 to 1,550 in 2011. Fatalities increased, as well, to 485 from 469. Of the total 1,550 accidents, 726 happened at or near airports, which is to be expected with the greater risks during takeoff and landing.

So, you already know why it's so important for you to be prepared.

That is why taking advantage of AAAE training, including ASOS (Airport Safety and Operations Specialist) schools, the certified member (CM) program, the interactive employee training (IET) system, and other accreditation programs is so important.

Spencer (Dickerson) tells me that there have been more than 2 million AAAE computer-based training sessions over the past decade for more than a half million airport employees.

Wow. To paraphrase Delta's old slogan, "You love to train and it shows." Good training and evaluating outcomes are essential to professionalism.

Tom Zoeller, our director of communications, who you may know from his time with AAAE, tells me there's a saying in the airport community: "If you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport."

That's because every airport is as unique as the community it serves. But, there is one constant and that is the professionalism of airport leadership.

Let's look at how an airport's commitment to preparation and professionalism plays out after an accident.

Last September, during the annual National Championship Air Races, a modified P-51D crashed into the crowd at Reno-Stead killing the pilot and ten spectators. These were the first spectator fatalities in the history of the air races.

The response, from former AAAE Chair and last year's Distinguished Service Award winner, Krys Bart, and her team at Reno-Tahoe and Reno-Stead, was instant as they went to work with local emergency personnel immediately.

Three of our investigators were at the races when the accident occurred so they witnessed the rapid response with support equipment and triage supplies.

In the days that followed, the airport provided office space to the Incident Command Center, equipment for on-scene efforts, and actively supported our investigators and public affairs team.

They have also participated as a party member in the on-going investigation and attended our January hearing in Washington.

Earlier this month they facilitated meetings with community officials and provided space for our press conference to announce investigative findings and safety recommendations.

Yes, the Reno-Tahoe team can talk about the before and after of aviation accidents.

Before includes establishing the procedures, the coordination across the community and, of course, the drills.

The after includes everything you trained for - and then some. You plan and drill because you know it's essential to avoid as much on-the-job training after an accident as possible.

But, your triennial drill is usually wrapped up in a day. A real accident, its aftermath, and our investigation can be more complicated, take a lot longer, and require significant airport resources.

Let me give you an idea of what we've learned about the impact of accidents and investigations on airports not just in the week, but in the years that follow.

You all remember the August 2006, Comair crash in Lexington, Kentucky, which killed 49 people. This was the "wrong runway" accident where the plane was to have taken off from runway 22 (7,000 feet long), but, instead, attempted to takeoff on the much shorter runway 26 (3,500 feet).

I was the board member on scene for that accident and watched as the airport served as the entry point for NTSB investigators, victims' families, airline care team members, and the national news media that descended on Fayette County.

One of the first people I interacted with was at the car rental counter at the airport. As she handed me the keys and the contract, she asked if we were there to investigate the accident. When I replied that I was, she said, "Thank you for being here and God bless you." That set the tone for how our team was to be supported in Lexington throughout the investigation.

I am certain that there were many others who received comfort and support from airport personnel people who were also shocked and sad, but doing their jobs, staying longer than required, and treating people with respect and kindness in spite of their own grief.

I can tell you that the accident had a profound effect on the aviation industry, again drawing attention to professionalism and runway safety (two issues on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements). But it also had a major impact on the Lexington community and the state of Kentucky.

Last August, I attended the memorial of the 5-year anniversary of the 5191 accident. The Governor, the Mayor and I participated with a number of amazing family members in a moving service, but the family members also invited Scott Lanter, Director of Public Safety and Operations at Blue Grass Airport, to participate in the unveiling of the memorial statue of 49 birds taking flight for the airport's ongoing support of the families following the accident.

I had the opportunity to meet with Eric Frankl, Blue Grass airport's Executive Director since 2009. We discussed the significant resources required for the investigation: for the better part of a year, one or more of their staff were dedicated to assisting the NTSB team as they conducted taxi tests, evaluating airport lighting, developed the factual record, and participated in technical reviews.

For an airport the size of Lexington, there isn't an "extra employee" who represents the airport in an investigation, but you may want to think about who you would want to designate from your staff in the event of a major crash.

In the past few years Eric and the Blue Grass team have finalized crucial safety improvements at the airport, including improved runway and taxiway markings and lighting as well as completed a new runway, separate from its previous location, vastly improving situational awareness. Much of this activity was not contemplated prior to the accident, but the 2006 crash served as a catalyst for change, ushering in projects at a pace and scope that exceeded expectations.

In 2008, I travelled to the scene of another accident, this time at South Carolina's Columbia Metropolitan Airport that happened as the aircraft was departing runway 11. The accident killed four and seriously injured two passengers - both notable figures in the music industry. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of media interest in the capital city until the survivors were moved to Atlanta hospitals.

But more disruptive than the media attention, the airport faced serious operational issues. The accident airplane left a lot of evidence on the runway that needed to be documented, so our team couldn't release the runway until their work was done. It happened that the airport's only other air carrier runway 5/23 was closed for construction.

Of critical importance was to get the airport running again and dealing with the passengers and air carriers that couldn't get in or out of Columbia for the better part of the day, while assisting our investigators to make sure the evidence was preserved and documented, the FOD was cleaned up and the runway was safe to open.

Chuck Henderson, Deputy Director, and his team were extremely helpful and highly professional during a challenging time for their airport and community. I saw the new director, Dan Mann, here this morning.

Some version of what we saw in Reno, Lexington, and Columbia could happen to you ... at your airport. And, yes, you plan for it. You train for it. You drill for it.

But, how do you take it to the next level? How do you expect, and plan for, the unexpected?

I have three suggestions.

One, maintain and expand your professional involvement in AAAE. Continue to take advantage of training and professional development opportunities.

And, consider attending our next two-day post-accident communications course in October at the NTSB Training Center if you would like accident-specific media training.

Two, maintain your relationships with your peers. Learn from each other. Each one, teach one. The AAAE network, with this meeting, chapter meetings, and other specialty conferences are ideal places to share best practices.

And, don't wait to ask for help. Think ahead. Are you having an air show this summer? If so, ask Krys Bart what she is doing differently today. Ask yourself, if something happened at my airport, would we be ready?

Three, know that you have to be nimble and flexible. Everyone needs to be - no matter how big or how small your operation. Last fall, I visited Los Angeles World Airports and met with Gina Marie Lindsey and her team. We heard about LAWA's planning for critical events and toured its operations center, which is used regularly to be ready for emergencies. That's excellent preparation.

We all need to be nimble. You can't know what the future holds, but you can think about what could happen. For example, I know that the NTSB's budget would not come close to covering the cost of a water recovery operation if we were to lose an aircraft off shore, but I know how I would go about getting the funding if needed.

Long-time college football coach Darrell Royal captured this theme when he said, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

More to the point for aviation, safety is what happens when preparation meets professionalism.

That's the right stuff that AAAE members have demonstrated - and delivered.

Have a great conference!