The beginning of the year presents a good opportunity to reflect, and I took the chance to consider what I would like to see happen in aviation in the new year. Some are new issues and some are perennial issues that I refuse to abandon. We have an enviable safety record in aviation in the U.S. and around the globe; but safety records don’t just stand on their own. Sustaining them requires constant attention and refinement. Zero accidents may be unattainable, but it’s a goal still worth striving toward.
The U.S. has been the leader in aviation technology, but leadership means welcoming and encouraging new technology and being willing to take some risks–albeit well managed ones–to continue to carry the leadership mantle that has made the U.S. the envy of aviation worldwide.
Most important, we need to recognize those who contribute to aviation’s success from aeronautical engineers to baggage handlers to everyone in between: mechanics, pilots, gate agents and all the other unsung workers who are the backbone of the aviation industry.
So these are my wishes for 2015:
RENEWED FOCUS ON AVIATION EMPLOYEES
With shortages in virtually every aviation specialty–including pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers–employers need to renew their focus on creating the working environment and pay structure that attracts the best and the brightest–and retains them for the long term. The airlines need to lead the trend. After all, airlines are making record profits after years of suffering from economic downturns and bankruptcies. According to the International Air Transport Association’s December 2014 Economic Report for the airline industry, global airlineprofits are predicted to be $19.9 billion in 2014 and set to rise to $25 billion this year.
According to IATA’s report, “the strongest financial performance by far is being delivered by airlines in North America,” with net post-tax profits anticipated to be $11.9 billion in 2014 and climbing to $13.2 billion this year. With these record gains, the airlines need to begin to undo the employee givebacks that were necessitated by the financial crises of years past. This is not just to benefit the employees but also the safety of the system. Young people are not entering aviation the way they used to. The military pipeline has pretty much dried up. The industry has to make it attractive once again to work in aviation or our safety gains over the years will surely evaporate. The human element continues to be the highest contributor to aviation incidents and accidents, and certainly experience and training are factors.
In many aviation jobs today, turnover is too high to guarantee the level of experience necessary to provide for the kind of workforce needed to safely meet the challenges of today’s operations, not to mention those in the future. The increased attention to worker hiring and retention needs to trickle down to every level, including the ramp, where many workers hold two and even three jobs to make ends meet. Improving pay and benefits on the ramp is not just good for employees: it could likely decrease the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on ground damage. Employees working two and three jobs are likely to come to work fatigued, and we know the consequences of fatigue on safety.
SPEED UP APPROVALS FOR COMMERCIAL DRONE OPERATIONS
I’ve written a lot about drones lately. As I wrote in the March issue, it was my students at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology who re-ignited my interest in unmanned aircraft technology. Their fascination with this new technology focused my interest on what was happening in the United States. As I wrote then, I was involved in a project many years ago that involved cargo operations of unmanned aircraft. When the FAA shot down that idea, I stopped following the situation until my students’ enthusiasm brought me back.
And now, it is dismaying to me to see that in the years that passed between my unmanned cargo project that went nowhere and today, little has changed to bring the promise of unmanned aerial technology–especially the very small UAVs–to commercial use in the United States. In December the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued another report on the subject, titled Unmanned Aerial System Efforts Made toward Integration into the National Airspace System, but Many Actions Still Required. The GAO is an arm of Congress and wrote this report for the House subcommittee on aviation that is looking into the FAA’s actions in light of the Congressional mandate to safely integrate UAVs into the national airspace by 2015. That mandate is contained in the 2012 FAAModernization and Reform Act. I hope Congress reads the report. And takes action based on it.
While the FAA has made some progress on drones, the report notes that it’s been slow and is not complete by a long stretch. According to the GAO report, some of the most important provisions of the Act have been significantly delayed and are unlikely to meet their target dates. Most disturbing are the GAO’s comments on where the U.S. stands in relation to other countries in the commercialization of drone applications. In a section titled “Other Countries Have Progressed in UAS Integration to Allow Some Level of Commercialization,” the GAOcites a study done for the FAA last year that reveals four countries that have progressed further than the FAA in regulating commercial uses of drones: Japan, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. In Japan, UAStechnology has been used in agricultural applications for more than 10 years. Both Canada and Australia have created regulatory exemptions from certification requirements for UAVs weighing less than 4.4 pounds (albeit with strict requirements for safe operation including height, distance from people and property, weather and other requirements) which would cover the vast number of out-of-the-box drones being used today by commercial photographers, real estate agents and others for commercial operations that with a handful of exceptions are illegal in the U.S. today.
So my two wishes for 2015 harken back to my early days in aviation. When I was growing up, aviation was a career that students wanted because of the excitement of flying or working in the industry, and the jobs paid well enough to support a family properly. We need to get back to aviation being that kind of career. As far as drones go, I grew up in an era of U.S. pre-eminence in aviation and in the future of aviation. If we don’t speed up UAVintegration, we will no longer be the leaders we once were.