For Peggy Gilligan, aviation safety is the focal point of all that she does. As associate administrator for aviation safety for the FAA, she is responsible for overseeing and enforcing safety standards for the entire industry. Whether it’s the airlines, manufacturers, pilots, air traffic controllers – just about anyone or anything related to aviation – Gilligan has a steady hand in ensuring those standards.
Her role is somewhere between a cheerleader and a den mother, lauding the industry enthusiastically for its safety record while at the same time promoting best practices, along with continued care and caution.
“When I graduated law school I was looking for an opportunity for public service,” she says. “In 1979, there was not a lot of hiring going on. I was studying for the bar exam at St. John’s law school and I saw an ad for the FAA job.” Gilligan took the job fresh out of school and began work as a staff attorney at the FAA in 1980. She has been with the agency ever since.
“A lot of the work we did at that time was to enforce regulations. I didn’t know much about aviation but the people at [the] FAA loved teaching you,” says Gilligan. “I had the great fortune to meet a lot of inspectors, engineers, and pilots along the way who shared their expertise with me.”
One of Gilligan’s proudest achievements is the work she and her colleagues have done to improve aviation safety by understanding risks, then taking action to mitigate them. Collecting and analyzing a vast body of data generated voluntarily by flight crews has been the foundation of much of this effort. “Understanding how and why it happened gives us a better opportunity to solve the problem,” she explains.
Gilligan serves as the co-chair of CAST (Commercial Aviation Safety Team), a joint industry/government group that developed a data driven strategy to improve safety by reducing risks. “When we went down this path the concept was to capture hangar talk,” she says. “We knew there was a lot of information related to the system that was out there. We needed a way to capture that to enhance safety.”
Over the past decade, aviation fatalities have been reduced by 83 percent. “We are at the safest point in aviation industry because we have created a series of checks and balances and they’ve really worked,” notes Gilligan.
CAST has evolved and the group is moving beyond the historic approach of examining past accident data to a more proactive approach that focuses on detecting risk and implementing mitigation strategies before accidents or serious incidents occur. The goal over the next decade is to transition to prognostic safety analysis. CAST is targeting a 50% reduction in US commercial fatality risk by year 2025.
While pilot talk has certainly aided Gilligan in her work, she hasn’t personally harbored an ambition to become a pilot, but adds with dry wit, “The one reason I stayed in aviation is there is never a long line at the ladies room.”
For anyone considering a career in the aviation industry – both women and men – she offers this: “The advice would be to work hard, build an expertise, a competency. The sky’s the limit. Work hard and perform. I’ve had a lot of opportunity. I was able to take that then, and capitalize [on it] and I was able to perform. It’s like that in any industry. People offer you opportunity.”