| Thursday, December 9, 1999, 11:23 a.m.
Study finds NTSB teetering 'near
the breaking point'
by Chuck Taylor
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
An outside study of the National Transportation
(NTSB) says the agency is stretched precariously
increasingly complex plane-crash investigations,
making it too
reliant on the expertise of those with the
most liability - airlines and
The report by Rand, a Santa Monica, Calif.,
think tank, describes
an agency "at or near the breaking point"
in terms of staff
workload. Moreover, a "lack of training, equipment
has placed the NTSB's ability to independently
of major commercial aviation accidents at
risk," it says.
The "party system" of investigation, through
which the safety
board taps the expertise of involved companies,
such as Boeing,
and unions remains necessary, the report says,
even though the
companies have an interest in the outcome.
The rationale is that no
one understands a complicated airplane better
than the people
who built it.
But the NTSB needs to increase its own expertise
and should consult disinterested experts more
often to ensure that
parties to an investigation can't unduly influence
the study says.
"Rand has found that, at least in certain complex
accidents, the party system is potentially
unreliable and that party
representatives may be acting to further various
prevention of a similar accident," the report
"NTSB investigations of major commercial aviation
have become nothing but preparation for anticipated
while the rules of participation in an investigation
prohibit that, the report says.
The Rand findings are not likely to surprise
those in the
aviation-safety field. The written report
follows months of public
discussion of the evolving study. Many will
regard it as articulation
of the obvious.
Not all, however. Ron Hinderberger, Boeing
director of airplane
safety, denies that his company's participation
investigations is motivated by anything other
than a desire "to find
out what happened and why."
"Our greatest liability is not the litigation
that's going to occur as a
result of an accident, but the safety of the
entire fleet," he said,
alluding to engineering changes that often
result from crash
Hinderberger agrees, however, with another
Rand conclusion -
that the NTSB staff is overworked.
Today's report could be the credible documentation
board needs to get its budget increased.
"I hope this will be a wake-up (call) to the
people in Congress
that this is a very important agency, and
it holds a very important
place in the safety equation," said Cynthia
Lebow, who led the
The NTSB's fiscal 1999 budget was $55 million,
about the list
price of one single-aisle jetliner.
Governed by a board of five political appointees,
the NTSB is
charged with investigating air and ground
and pipeline failures and with recommending
action to prevent
them. It has no rule-making authority and
is among the smallest
federal agencies, with about 400 employees.
Its challenges, the Rand report said, aren't
entirely related to
insufficient resources or the tension inherent
in the party system.
The NTSB does a poor job of managing what resources
does not keep records in a way that helps
intentionally and detrimentally insulates
itself from the aviation
industry and has archaic investigative methods,
the report says.
The party system, however, was the intended
focus of the study,
which NTSB Chairman Jim Hall requested last
"The effective separation of the NTSB investigative
the litigation process is an ideal that has
little connection to the
reality of current practice," Rand says.
The report, based in part on many interviews
of those inside and
outside the NTSB, cites no specific cases
of a party's behavior
affecting the integrity of an investigation.
However, Rand's Lebow said: "This is a common
purpose is not to point a finger at one party
or another. It's as
common to the Federal Aviation Administration
as it is to an
engine manufacturer or an aircraft manufacturer
or an airline."
In that context, the report could fend off
a desire by some
interested parties, including Boeing, to be
involved in the latter
stages of crash investigations, when the NTSB
staff is analyzing
the facts and writing its report. Rand says
that letting parties have
more say would only widen the credibility
The report also might deflect a contention
by plaintiff attorneys
that, as investigation participants, companies
and the government
have an unfair legal advantage. One possible
balance to that -
selecting a representative from among hundreds
of relatives of
those killed in a crash - would be problematic
and likely violate a
requirement that participants have technical
The report describes an agency with a good
reputation and a
proud staff but says investigators are overworked:
weeks are the norm, and peak workloads exceed
"In significant ways, the NTSB is already at
or near the breaking
point," the study says.
Said Hall, in a speech last month: "Probably
the most important
issue raised in the report indicates that
complex and contentious
accident investigations, such as the investigation
into USAir Flight
427, which crashed outside Pittsburgh in 1994,
and the ongoing
TWA Flight 800 investigation, are likely to
be the norm in the
future rather than the exception."
Investigation of the USAir crash, which involved
a Boeing 737,
took more than four years and resulted in
supported conclusion of a rudder malfunction.
Investigation of the 1996 crash of Flight 800,
a 747 that exploded
in flight, continues, but the crash appears
to have been caused by
an internally ignited fuel-tank explosion.
Boeing disagrees with that
Chuck Taylor's phone-message number is 206-464-2465.