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Aero Club Keynote: Addressing Today's Challenges While Preparing for the Future

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Aero Club of Washington, DC
Washington, DC
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
“Addressing Today’s Challenges While Preparing for the Future”

Thank you, Margaret [McKeough]. Thanks for having me today.

Let me congratulate J’la Carroll, and the Aero Club Foundation for awarding her a scholarship to help her pursue aviation or aerospace studies. I am so excited for her future!

This is a transformational time for aviation!  We’re in the midst of the third great inflection point since the dawn of manned flight, and the beginning of the jet age.  With the introduction of unmanned aircraft systems, aviation has entered a new era that has the potential to save lives and create new services, jobs and opportunity. 

As we navigate this new era, however, we still need to address the challenges of the current age.  The jet age and the drone age will continue to co-exist, and operate in the same national airspace.  And as you know, both are growing exponentially.  By 2036, the number of air passengers worldwide is projected to double to 7.8 billion annually, at the same time, the drone sector is taking off. As of June 7, 2018, there were 1.1 million registered drones in the U.S., and more than 94,000 registered drone operators.  The rules and regulations governing our national airspace never anticipated drones.  If our country is to remain a global aviation leader and reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer, we need to work together to develop a path forward for the safe integration of unmanned systems into our national airspace.

So, this afternoon, let me offer an update on some key aviation initiatives, as well as what the Department is doing to help safely usher in the third new era of aviation innovation.

As you may know, my three priorities as Secretary are safety, improving our nation’s aging infrastructure to improve our nation’s aging infrastructure, increasing the competitiveness and productivity of our economy, and preparing for the future—all of which I will touch upon today.

But safety is—and will always be—number one. 

This year, safety came into national focus with the tragic loss of life on Flight 1380.  It was a stark reminder that safety requires constant collaboration and vigilance.  The Department’s compliance philosophy encourages stakeholders to share knowledge or incidents that otherwise would remain hidden.  So, everyone can learn and benefit. That philosophy has served our country well.  We have had nine years without a major commercial aviation accident.  But the job of preserving and enhancing safety is never to be taken for granted.  So, the Department will continue its strong focus on compliance.  Safety is measurable.  The Department is committed to continuing to drive down fatality metrics by promoting safety management systems in all aspects of aviation.

A key part of safety—as well as efficiency—is the air traffic control system. It underpins our entire national airspace.  When I was Deputy Secretary of Transportation 25 years ago, we were discussing NAS Plan- a precursor to NextGen.  Today, that same discussion continues. Since 2007, there have been 39 audits of NextGen implementation by the DOT Inspector General, and 6 are currently ongoing. We take these very seriously.  The system still has not been fully implemented.  The FAA is filled with hard-working professionals and we have to challenge ourselves to do better.  That’s especially true because the challenges, which ATC reform was designed to address, are still with us.  So we need all of your best efforts.

Let me note that the Department is well aware that technological improvements in airspace management mean more aircraft in the skies, causing more noise and disturbances around airports and over communities. That’s why we are committed to a new, collaborative approach, rather than top-down dictates.  The new approach includes reaching out to communities, listening to their concerns, and addressing these concerns before we implement new procedures or redesign airspace. 

Commercial carriers have committed to installing these new systems, however the pace has not been what we expected to date. In General Aviation, there is still a long way to go, and the deadline for installation is 2020 – just 18 months from now. 

Some operators are ready to go.  Others are not.   It is noteworthy that one major commercial carrier just announced it will do more than meet the ADS-B “Out” mandate for its entire fleet by Jan 1, 2020.  It also plans to make a substantial investment in ADS-B “In” equipment.  That – I am told – is the ultimate tool for satellite-based, NextGen air traffic management. So, I commend this carrier for stepping up and encourage all operators to ensure they address this important and fast approaching deadline.

It doesn’t do any good to put more airplanes in the air, however, if the ground infrastructure is not there to support them. That’s why it’s more important than ever to upgrade our airports.  I’m pleased to note that the recently passed Omnibus Appropriations Bill included a down payment of $10 billion on the President’s infrastructure initiative, including an additional $1 billion to improve our nation’s airports.  This past week, the Department announced Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants totally $677 million.  This is part of a series of tranches which will lead to a total investment in airport improves of $3.18 billion.  These will fund runways, taxiways, aprons and terminal projects to improve efficiency and enhance safety. And the needs of rural areas and smaller airports are included in this mix.

And while we’re focusing on technology and infrastructure, all of us need to remember that people and passengers are at the heart of aviation. As Secretary of Transportation, I am a frequent flyer.  I travel commercially all over the United States, in coach class and frequently in the middle seat.  I see what other passengers see, and experience the same challenges they do during flight.  So, I take consumer protection very seriously. 

The Department is committed to reform that strengthens consumer protections, and reduces regulatory burdens that impose significant costs without providing commensurate benefits.

Let me mention just one regulatory issue that has received a lot of attention lately – service animals.  On May 23, 2018, the Department issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in response to growing concerns that the current rules aren’t working as they should. The notice solicits input from everyone – 1,500 comments have already been received.  The goal is to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are fully protected, that clear violations are addressed, that abuse is discouraged, and that the environment on board is safe for both passengers and crew. 

So, you can see the Department is doing all it can to enhance safety, strengthen infrastructure, and protect consumers.  At the same time, our country also needs to step up and take the lead in preparing for the future of aviation.  That means-- as mentioned before – paving the way for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into our national airspace. On October 25, 2017, the President jump started this process by directing the Department to launch a new program—the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.  It will test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions currently prohibited.  These include operations over people, beyond line of sight, and at night. This will help demonstrate how drones can safely perform a wide range of activities, at different times of the day, and across a variety of locations and geographies. 

When the Department put out a request for applications for this program, the response was overwhelming.  Approximately 150 communities and their private sector partners applied.  On May 9, 2018, we announced the 10 selections for the Integration Pilot Program.  These projects include everything from drone delivery of defibrillators and other medical supplies, to fighting the Zika virus, improving agriculture, helping first responders with search and rescue, delivering packages, and others.  Drones already proved themselves last year as firefighters battled California’s wildfires and first responders assisted survivors of three successive hurricanes. There is continuing demand for drone operations.  In 2017, the FAA issued 1,122 waivers for drones to operate.  And so far in 2018, the FAA has issued 573 waivers. 

The Integration Pilot Program will generate valuable data on drone traffic management.  It will help the Department understand what happens when drones are added to the current aviation mix. It will help standardize operations.  In addition, the Department will be announcing two new rules in the upcoming weeks concerning drones over people, and the safe and secure operation of drones.    

As we prepare for the third wave of aviation, however, there is still plenty of room for older technologies that show renewed promise.  For example, improved technology has created a renewed interest in commercially viable supersonic aviation. So, the Department is studying this issue to see how regulations could be modified to enable this innovation, where appropriate.

And the Department also has a major role to play in enabling the further development of commercial space. This is a tremendous success story for our country, which currently leads the world in commercial space launches.  We want to keep it that way.  So, acting on the recommendation of the National Space Council, the President recently signed Space Policy Directive Two.  Among other things, it directs the Department of Transportation to update and streamline launch and re-entry licensing requirements.  This includes a regulatory approach that is performance based, rather than prescriptive. This is a key area of reform that the Department is working hard on—so stayed tuned for more announcements!     

Let me close by noting that I’ve touched on a lot of issues today.  That’s because aviation is at an historic turning point, and this is a unique gathering of aviation stakeholders.  Your participation and concern helps to keep this sector vibrant and strong, building upon a record of excellence, creativity and innovation.  Its safety record is unmatched in all of transportation.

So, thank you for all that you do.  The Department welcomes your input and feedback on its new initiatives and rule makings.  You are valued partners in ensuring that our country remains—as it has been since the days of the Wright Brothers—a world leader in aviation.

Thank you.

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Updated: Friday, June 15, 2018
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