Government’s drive for continued air travel safety improvement enters a new phase

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Airline safety has increased nearly 100% in the last couple of decades. But the challenge is not over. There’s still a big gap in average safety among nations. Bacterial and viral disease increasingly fly first class around the world, and new modes of navigation make the whole system more vulnerable to cyber attacks. That’s the gist of new research by the MITRE Corporation. For more, former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and MITRE’s aviation chief, Gregg Leone, spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And I want to start with the most current thing people are thinking about, and that is the pandemic, which like so many things, insects for that matter that invade force of travel, like to say the 747 was the greatest transportation system for invasive species ever invented. But the pandemic – how do airlines, how does the system adjust for this now that we’re, again, inequality among nations, and so forth?

Rodney Slater: Well, Tom, I think you’re right to lift up the pandemic as really being a challenge that’s faced not only here in the U.S. but across the globe. Frankly, it speaks to the need for cooperation and collaboration. It speaks to the need for the U.S. to remain a leader, not only in dealing with the pandemic as relates to its own citizens, but working in partnership with other nations around the world to address this very significant issue. Clearly, in the early days of the pandemic, some actions were taken to stop the flow of the movement of people. And that’s, frankly, because our carriers, and with a seamless transportation system, you can actually move people efficiently effectively, frankly, across the globe in a matter of hours. And so being sensitive to that is the first step in responding to the challenge. The other point I think to be made is that the industry has been very effective as relates to the distribution, if you will, of vaccines, and also in keeping the economy of the globe going – not only the international marketplace that can sometimes be viewed as sort of a static, complicated, unknown for most. For those who are in the business of transportation, we know that it’s about getting something from a point of origin to a point of destination, in the most timely, efficient fashion possible. And that’s what keeps our economy going. The transportation industry, aviation in particular, is really the industry that helps other businesses do business. And we’ve seen that manifested in this period of the pandemic as well. I think the key thing, and I’ll close with this is to learn as many lessons as we can, to apply them not only in the U.S. but to do so in partnership with our colleagues around the world. And you have to, I think, give the aviation industry kudos, frankly, for diving into this challenge, basically, recognizing that the challenge in the way becomes the way you have to deal with that challenge. And they have made significant investments in the air circulation systems of the planes, they have invested significantly in the cleaning and cleanliness of the planes. The distancing – for a long time, there was this middle seat vacancy policy on some carriers, especially Delta, but others as well. And so all of those things, including requiring masking have been very, very important, as we have tried to deal with this issue head on, we’ve now gotten a little breathing room. And so it’s time to start thinking long term. And hopefully, we’ll be able to get a bit into that discussion as we go forward. But this is also the business of MITRE. And I want to commend Gregg Leone and his leadership and MITRE when it comes to our transportation portfolio, and especially on the aviation side, but across transportation. And I’m so pleased that he and his team, were able to work with others to pull together this wonderful piece that you have referenced. And I hope we’ll get into a bit more as the conversation continues.

Tom Temin: Yeah, Gregg, I wanted to ask you is a time to move this idea of where people can go and how carriers do this out of, say, I don’t know who’s deciding now – the White House or Dr. Fauci, say with respect to travel to and from India as an example, a current problem?

Gregg Leone: Sure.

Tom Temin: And should this move into the apparatus that has always controlled international aviation, that is, international agreements on safety standards and so on, which, frankly, have been led mostly by the United States as the most advanced aviation nation?

Gregg Leone: Absolutely, I would say the key theme for us, the key message when it comes to safety and the next level of safety is around, acting locally to actually influence globally and that’s exactly what you just said. We had been doing this for many years to lead the world in safety standards. And this is just another area. We’ve always called out the aviation industry as one of the safest modes of transportation. And one of the reasons we call it out is it’s this globally harmonized, I’ll just call it system and mechanism that makes it a success. And, wherever you go, whatever pilots or whatever company, it’s a common set of standards. And I think, now that we talk about pandemic, and we talk about personal health, those safety standards, and those, what do you want to call it, vaccine records and other kinds of things are going to have to be standardized so that policymakers around the world, both public and private, can actually make decisions that are best for their state, for their nation and for the globe, basically. And so part of our push is to really help to standardize those things so that around the world, you can implement policies that’s needed specific to your locale.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Gregg Leone, he’s director of the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development at the MITRE Corporation, and with Rodney Slater, former Transportation secretary now a partner of the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. And let’s talk about the cyber threat that is increasingly coming into aviation, partly because of how much data is being downloaded and generated by aircraft themselves, but also the switch to the GPS navigation, which can be spoofed and so forth. What are some good international responses there? And what should our transportation department here in the U.S. be doing?

Rodney Slater: Tom, I was just gonna say quickly, and then I’ll turn to Gregg, I think one of the most significant things to occur during the Clinton administration was the decision through executive order – now working with the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, Commerce, the State Department – really across the administration to make GPS more available for civilian use. And it has actually enabled us to harness this very sophisticated piece of technology, if you will, and to add it to the concrete asphalt and steel of transportation as we think about it. So as to bring about greater efficiency and clarity and vision when it comes to the application of transportation technology. As we look to the future. A greater degree of automation, those sorts of things, communications between an among pieces of equipment, if you will, and clearly between an among human beings. But I just wanted to mention that because a lot of times you think the passage of major pieces of legislation, the most important thing, well, all of that’s important, because it gives you the policy, and it gives you the resources, but then also taking innovative steps like making GPS available for civilian use, and sometimes doing that through executive order, the power of the executive, very important, as well. And I applaud President Clinton and also Vice President Gore in their decision to move on this front. And now we see the significance of that technology, and we also have started to deal with some of the vulnerabilities. And, again, your question goes to that. And I’d like to just turn to Gregg at this point.

Gregg Leone: Great, yeah, and I would actually expand the problem, because the the paper that we put out, it actually is talking more about what’s coming in the future. And when you talk about drones, and this really interconnected world, it’s based on your communication standards. So think about space-based comm in the future that isn’t there yet today and how to secure that. And to make sure that the communications globally are secured. So that’s kind of a key point of ours. There’s ways to do that through, number one, collaborating globally with industry players that provide these services and make sure that we understand the threats and how we’re currently being attacked. And make sure that we’re sharing that with each other. And those kinds of apparatus and collaborations already exist today. And we just want to amplify those. And we want people to think about the infrastructure of the future, not just what we have today. And that’s part of what the paper calls out.

Tom Temin: But with respect to GPS, though, you almost need a backup type of system. And there are actually what two or three GPS is operating. China has one, I believe Russia has one. So should planes, for example, be able to if someone spoofs the U.S.-based system, we’ll use China’s because they typically wouldn’t show their own.

Gregg Leone: Sure, and most systems are interoperable like that. And there’s also fallback capabilities that if there is no GPS, most commercial fleet can fly with infrastructure that’s on the ground like DME/DME. So they have the services already today that support backup for that kind of navigation capability.

Rodney Slater: One other point that you make is, when you mentioned China and Russia, you’re also talking about countries with whom we can sometimes have conflict and tensions. But when it comes to this issue of safety, you will find that these countries find opportunities to work together and to collaborate a lot more than is usually the case. And I think we’re gonna see that on issues involving climate, and other major global concerns as well. But I just thought I’d mention that specifically, because you singled out China and Russia and, on a daily basis we see where we’re entangled with both – pushing back on certain things and trying to engage on others.

Tom Temin: And Aeroflot is scary enough as it is, which gets to the issue of the international differences among groups of nations, you’ve kind of classified them as most safe, kind of safe and not so safe. We’re still talking about low probabilities of death. But nevertheless, there are statistical differences. And this is, as the report points out, as more and more people are flying on those less safe carriers, the issue becomes more important. So how can the Transportation Department in the United States and international partners that are ahead in safety help bring along those that are not so far along?

Rodney Slater: Well, clearly, we have to have continued leadership from the FAA. And there’s an organization that we haven’t mentioned in the discussion just yet. But both Gregg and I, we mentioned it in the report, and that’s an organization called ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization ]. This entity is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary. It really grows out of effort on the part of the U.S. and the U.K. in the mid-40s, really during the height of the war, where aviation was a much more utilized means of, frankly warfare. But coming out of World War II there was the recognition that its commercial use would be significant going forward. So you really had Churchill and Roosevelt coming together with their teams inviting some 50 or so additional countries to this Chicago convention. That’s what they call it, the Great Chicago convention. And it was out of that effort that you started to get this first sort of iteration of a global protocol, if you will, which gave birth to this organization, ICAO. And while sometimes ICAO can be a little lumbering and methodical, it still does a very good job. And we have to build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses. And I think the FAA has a very good working relationship with ICAO and all of its country members. And we’re going to see that play out, I think, in the coming years with this administration, by the way. And we should mention a Biden administration that is engaging, that seeks to reestablish ties with our allies, as we’ve noted a little earlier, mix it up with our adversaries, try to find cooperation where possible on big things that we have to do globally. But they’ve been – being competitive on those things where we have to be, competitive. And I think ICAO really will be an entity that will get a lot more attention and a lot more support from the U.S. as we seek to deal with this issue of the layers of safety when it comes to aviation. One last thing quickly: During my tenure, one thing that we really promoted was what we called Open Skies, a liberalized aviation agreement among countries and between countries, usually country to country, but we did have some multi-country agreements starting right at the end. And we did a lot of work on the African continent. And I mentioned that because now we see growing aviation activity, really across the continent of Africa, but around the globe. And some of our most recent challenges we found to be in these new emerging countries as they move on the aviation front. And it’s incumbent upon countries like the U.S. and others that have more mature systems to be in partnership with these countries. And I think we’re going to see more of that as we go forward as well.

Tom Temin: And Gregg, final comment?

Gregg Leone: I would say one of the keys – and we call this out in the paper – one of the keys to enable all of this stuff is this notion of really enhanced data sharing from all parts and a partnership, not just with the country regulators, or the air traffic control operators, but with industry. Airlines, the drone operators, the OEMs, the people who build this thing – this is going to be a partnership that has to be re-enabled. It works very well today in the United States. But we need to move that partnership globally. We need to share sensitive data, we should not, never be – and we don’t compete on safety in the United States with airlines, we should never do that. And we don’t, but we need to kind of grow this apparatus globally, so that we can monitor and mitigate risks wherever they happen in the globe. And I think that’s a key part that we’re looking to move forward on.

Tom Temin: Ultimately, airline safety is a function of institutional strength, pretty much, for nations isn’t it?

Gregg Leone: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a requirement for your economy to really grow, I believe.

Rodney Slater 15:00
Yes, no I agree. Tom, just a quick thought there, I remember when the president elect of Nigeria, President Obasanjo, had just been elected had a meeting before his swearing in with President Clinton. And one of the top issues on his agenda was to seek the removal of cautions to American travelers at the time when it came to travel to Nigeria. He viewed that as an affront to the dignity and integrity of his country. And in this very substantive, though clear, direct exchange, the point was made that it was very important for him to implement safety protocols throughout Nigeria, he made a commitment to do that. And basically the U.S., in partnership with him, along with important businesses like the airlines, and Boeing in particular by the way, really got that work done. And now you have U.S. carriers flying directly to a number of countries across Africa, Nigeria in particular, but it took political leadership to stand up a safety protocol in Nigeria, to have it complimentary of the safety systems of developed aviation powers – the U.S., countries across Europe and the like, some throughout Asia. And President Obasanjo met that challenge and now Nigeria continues to serve in an admirable fashion in that regard, but clearly recognizing the need for improvement. As is always the case with safety. You may be as good as you can be today, but tomorrow you have to be better.

Tom Temin: Rodney Slater is former Transportation secretary, now a partner at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. Thanks so much for joining me.

Rodney Slater: Thank you.

Tom Temin: And Gregg Leone is director of the Center for Advanced aviation Systems Development at the MITRE Corporation. Thank you so much.

Gregg Leone: Thank you, Tom. Great to be here.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to that report at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Fly the Federal Drive on your schedule, subscribe and Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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