Cantwell Questions NTSB Chair on Automation, Risk-Based Safety Management in Aviation Industry

Sumwalt expresses support for risk-based safety management programs in aviation industry; Last week, Cantwell introduced legislation to codify NTSB recommendations, address safety challenges of increased automation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At today’s Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing to examine aviation safety and the Boeing 737 MAX, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the committee, questioned National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt about aviation safety and the increasing use of complex automated systems in commercial airplanes. 

Last week, Cantwell and U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced legislation to codify safety recommendations from the NTSB and other agencies to address challenges related to increased automation in commercial aircraft cockpits, as well as how pilots respond to flight deck alerts and uncommanded flight control inputs. 

“This is the hard work that we have to do in getting this right and moving forward,” Cantwell said. “My colleagues and I – Senator Duckworth, Senator Blumenthal – have already introduced legislation on the NTSB and other recommendations last week, and hope that we will be able to move forward on those.” 

“You heard the discussion… on this issue about what happened in the cockpit and the level of distraction, which I think is the point, Mr. Sumwalt, of at least two of the recommendations that we put in our legislation… That the FAA direct Boeing to have clearer corrective actions from uncommanded systems, and that there be some sort of resolution that they’ve had in other planes to the cockpit situation so that we’re not bombarding pilots.” 

Sumwalt responded that NTSB’s recommendations were designed to fix issues with the plane certification process. 

“We issued these seven recommendations a month ago because we did identify holes in the design certification process,” Sumwalt said. 

“We found that, when pilots are faced with multiple alerts, they’re not performing or reacting in the way that Boeing thought that they would react when they developed their design assumptions,” Sumwalt continued. 

In order to better address this issue, Cantwell’s legislation would – among other recommendations from NTSB – require the Federal Aviation Administration to develop robust tools and methods, with the input of industry and human factors experts, for use in validating assumptions about pilot recognition and response to safety-significant failure conditions as part of the design certification process.

Sumwalt also expressed support for risk-based safety management and the use of the safety management systems by manufacturers. Cantwell’s legislation would require aerospace manufacturers to adopt safety management systems that continuously identify and mitigate risks throughout the design and production process. 

“The NTSB has found the benefits of safety management systems in many modes of transportation, including transportation….We do believe that when you’re properly analyzing and assessing your risk, that is improving safety. So I think personally, I think that would be a good idea for manufacturers to have a safety management system in place,” Sumwalt said. “…from a safety practitioner’s perspective, again, when you’re managing your risk, you’re managing safety.” 

Video from Senator Cantwell’s Q&A with Chairman Sumwalt is available HERE, and audio is HERE.

More information about Senator Cantwell’s aviation safety legislation can be found HERE.