NTSB's Hall Says TWA 800 Probe to Be Concluded This Year

Washington, May 6

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board plans to wrap up its investigation of
the 1996 crash of Trans World Airlines Inc.'s Flight 800 by the end of the
year, the board's top official said.

NTSB Chairman James Hall, in testimony before the U.S. House Aviation
Subcommittee, said that while investigators believe a fuel tank explosion
caused the fiery crash, they still don't know what ignited the tank. The
board has already made a number of recommendations aimed at eliminating
possible ignition sources -- such as frayed wiring -- in and around the fuel tank.

Pennsylvania Republican Representative Don Sherwood questioned why it has
taken the board so long to complete the investigation. Among the TWA crash
victims were 16 high school students and their five adult chaperones from
Montoursville, Pennsylvania, a small community in Sherwood's district.

Hall defended the agency, saying the investigation ``has already resulted in
numerous safety recommendations.''

Congress is currently considering legislation that would set funding levels
for the independent safety board over the next three years.

The Clinton administration's request for the board, which investigates
accidents and makes safety recommendations for all modes of transportation,
includes $57 million in fiscal 2000, $73 million in 2001 and $76.4 million in
2002. The increases in the latter years would enable the Board to hire 68 new
full-time employees, bringing the number of individuals on the NTSB payroll
to 402.

`Excessive Workload'

Hall got some support from Cynthia Lebow, the Rand Corporation's Associate
Director. She told lawmakers that the NTSB's financial and staffing needs in
the coming years are only likely to increase. Rand is completing an audit of
the NTSB's operations, which is due later this year.

``Research suggests that while there may be fewer major aviation accidents,
those that do occur will be far more complex, presenting NTSB investigators
with unprecedented analytical challenges,'' Lebow said.

Lebow said aviation investigators at the board in particular -- who work an
average of 52 hours a week and even longer during the immediate aftermath of
airplane crashes -- ``operate under a continuing excessive workload.''

The hours, coupled with the current pay scale at the Board, have made it
difficult for the agency to attract experienced professionals from
positions in the private sector, Lebow said.

Missile Theory

Retired U.S. Navy pilot, William Donaldson, a persistent critic of the NTSB's
handling of the Flight 800 probe, also testified before the Aviation Subcommittee.

Donaldson accused the Board of participating in a vast cover- up conspiracy
and said his independent investigation of the Flight 800 crash concluded that
the explosion was caused by a missile fired from a vessel off the coast of
Long Island, New York.

The NTSB's Hall there is no physical evidence to support Donaldson's theory.
Donaldson's allegations met with obvious skepticism from his Congressional

May/06/1999 18:07
(C) Copyright 1999 Bloomberg L.P.