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Keynote Address to American Bar Association Forum on Air and Space Law 2011 Update Conference, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
American Bar Association Forum on Air and Space Law 2011 Update Conference, Washington, DC

Thank you, Rene [Rene Martin-Nagle], for the invitation to join you this morning.

Ninety years ago today, in 1921, a team of pilots completed an experimental coast-to-coast mail flight; flying by day and night, they linked San Francisco and Long Island in a day and half's flying time. A year ago today, on February 23rd, 2010, the United Nations reported that 4.6 billion or two-thirds of the world population now owns and uses mobile phones. I can't imagine how many more users have signed up in the last year.

Technology is moving so fast that we don't need to rely on air mail anymore, and e-mail is almost passé. Communication has made our world smaller and more interconnected, but it has also increased expectations and pressures for rapid information.

Today I would like to talk about how aviation is more interconnected than ever by focusing on two areas: code sharing arrangements and international accident investigations. I understand that your program highlights the safety relationship between airlines and their regional partners, so I thought I would talk about our symposium on code-sharing.

Many regard code-sharing as a purely economic or customer service function, but during my service at the NTSB a number of investigations have involved flights operating under code-share agreements. Here are a few of them:

  • 2009 - Buffalo, New York, Continental Connection operated by Colgan Air;
  • 2007 - Traverse City, Michigan, Northwest Airlink operated by Pinnacle Airlines;
  • 2007 - Cleveland, Ohio, Delta Connection operated by Shuttle America;
  • 2006 - Lexington, Kentucky, Delta Connection operated by Comair; and
  • 2004 - Kirksville, Missouri, American Connection operated by Corporate Airlines.

Through our investigations, we recognized that a better understanding of airline code-sharing arrangements and their role in aviation safety was needed, so we held a symposium last October. We found that there is no universal type of code-share. Whether it's a code-share partnership between a domestic main line carrier and regional air carrier, or two domestic main line carriers, or domestic and international carriers, these are complex relationships. Many mainline carriers have multiple regional partners, and some regionals fly for several mainline carriers.

Perhaps the phrase "code-sharing" is itself a bit misleading – after all, only members of the industry ever use airline codes. The travelling public might better understand the practice if it was dubbed name-sharing, because it's really the airline's name and their reputation that is being shared.

Regardless of what term we use, these relationships are growing. Today, regional airlines represent more than half of the scheduled flights in the US. Code-sharing provides consumers with convenience and accessibility, and carriers expand their network without investing significant resources in lesser-used routes.

The symposium highlighted a great deal of coordination between some airlines and their partners, particularly in the areas of auditing, operations, and the sharing of safety data. And that's the way it should be. After all, when an airline is willing to put their name, their paint scheme and, most-importantly, their passengers into the hands of another operator, they have both the opportunity and the obligation to make sure that safety is job one.

The good news from the symposium was that a lot of carriers are going beyond the FAA minimums and even using their relationships with other carriers to "raise the bar on safety" but the bad news from our accident investigations is that sometimes the FAA requirements are seen as a not just the floor, but also the ceiling for things such as qualifications and training.

So let's turn that conversation to your most recent international trip. If you booked on-line or through a US carrier, did you know who would operate your flight? Was it a US carrier or code-share partner? Do you expect the same level of safety when you fly internationally as you would domestically?

So that brings me to the NTSB's role in accident investigations outside the US. Did you know that, in the past decade, the Safety Board provided support in nearly 400 foreign investigations?

Investigating an accident on non-US soil can present a unique set of challenges. If our international partners cannot conduct their own investigation or need additional support, we can assist them. We do this regularly in our recorders lab since about a third of our recorder workload involves devices from foreign accidents. And when we go to any accident scene, the investigators, the passengers and the aircraft hail from all over the globe.

That is why, in my second year as Chairman, I am committed to strengthening our international relationships and making sure that here in Washington, the many safety benefits of NTSB participation in these investigations are recognized, as we bring home the lessons learned from these foreign accidents.

To give you a sense of the extent of our foreign activities, about 75% of the air carrier accident and incident investigations conducted by the NTSB each year now are non-US events. And of our seven Investigators-in-Charge, one spends almost half of his time in Africa.

Last year, NTSB investigators traveled to Dubai to support a United Arab Emirates investigation of UPS 6 – a US operator, US crew and US manufactured airplane. While our investigators may not be diplomats by title, they are diplomats through their actions as they work alongside people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. When they arrived at the desert crash site it was 120 degree temperatures during the month of Ramadan, which is when many Muslims refrain from eating or drinking between sunup and sundown. Out of respect for our colleagues, NTSB investigators did their best to follow suit. I can tell you that those circumstances were definitely not something contemplated by our OSHA committee.

In these foreign investigations, the US stakeholders – the NTSB, as well as the FAA and the manufacturer and/or operator of the aircraft – are in a position to see, first-hand, potential airworthiness issues with US products. This, in turn, provides us at the Safety Board with the information we need to make recommendations to address safety deficiencies – bringing these lessons learned home to improve the safety of our domestic fleet./p>

For example, we worked alongside Spanish investigators on the August 2008 Spanair crash during takeoff in Madrid. Investigators quickly determined that the MD-82's leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps were not extended during takeoff. In coordination with the Spanish investigative team, the NTSB issued five safety recommendations citing areas for improvement in US certification standards for take-off warning systems as well as operational procedures for addressing take-off configuration errors.

Another example involves the crash of a British Airways Boeing 777 airplane during landing at London's Heathrow Airport in January 2008. Through our participation in the British-led investigation, investigators identified vulnerabilities in the airplane's Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines that resulted in the restriction of fuel supply to both engines. As a result, the NTSB, in concert with our British colleagues, issued two safety recommendations addressing the design of the engine's fuel-oil heat exchanger.

And here is where some of these investigations come full circle. Almost all major US carriers have code-sharing arrangements with international carriers. Most of you have travelled outside the United States, and you likely travelled on a foreign air carrier by choice or through one of those code-sharing arrangements. Our work makes your flights safer – on all carriers.

Lastly, our participation in foreign-led accidents also ensures reciprocal support when foreign equipment or foreign air carriers are involved in an accident here in the US. Our investigations of the Continental Connection 3407 crash and the Miracle on the Hudson ditching both involved foreign designed and manufactured airplanes, and the NTSB's investigation benefited greatly from our Canadian and French counterparts support in our understanding the performance of the aircraft during the accident.

Every plane that is built now has components, engines or avionics built by another manufacturer. It is rare for the NTSB to be the sole state of manufacturer at any international accident. We recognize that aviation safety knows no geographic boundaries and not only are major and regional carriers interconnected, but so too, are international operations. Through our domestic and foreign investigations, we help drive further improvements in the US safety record. Ultimately, my hope is that our work will result in expectations for the safety of international air travel on par with what we have in the United States.

Thank you.

If there is time, I'd be happy to take a few questions.