Remarks of Ellen Engleman Conners
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
Aeronautical Repair Station Association
October 19, 2005
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. Since everyone in this room follows the activities of the Board and recent trends in aviation safety, rather than cite a number of the Board's recommendations and reports of which you are already aware, I would like to present a brief overview of the Board and then listen to your views regarding aviation safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board, or "the Board" as many people call it, is not the 5 appointed members of the Board; it is truly the career staff of approximately 420 personnel. These professionals have dedicated their careers to a mission, not a mission statement. Of the 420 employees, about 130 are in our Aviation Safety office, with 41 investigators based in our field offices and 43 based in our headquarters in Washington, DC. And these investigators rarely get a day off work; they are constantly being called to accidents here in the United States and, as we have all recently seen, on occasion overseas.
In addition to the people who work at the Board, I like to think of the Board as "the Little Agency That Could." We have a budget of well under $100 million, but we have a reputation as the world-leader for accident investigations, and our acronym is synonymous with the word "expertise."
Our goal is to get the answers regarding accidents as soon as possible, yet maintain the quality and thoroughness of the investigation. While we do not set artificial deadlines, we realize that with any investigation there is a date uncertain at which the demands of timeliness, applicability of lessons learned and quality must come together.
However excellent any organization might be, none is ever constantly at 100% of where it would like to be; and so it is with the Board. We are currently challenged by the lack of in-house technical expertise in materials such as composites, which are making up an increasing percentage of materials used in aircraft and other vehicles. While we do partner with such organizations as NASA when the need arises, and the party system is a key component of our investigatory resources, when it comes to composites, we do not have that in-house, completely independent expertise that we know will be increasingly in demand.
For commercial aviation in the United States, we have seen an incredible run of safety that now spans more than 3 years. However, when looking at commercial flight accidents world-wide, we see a percentage break-down of contributing factors to accidents that looks like the following: 56% flight crew, 17% air frame, 13% weather, 4% ATC, and 4% maintenance issues. So one question you might ask is: How do we transfer the knowledge gained domestically to the international community and to other modes of transportation?
Our domestic aviation community has embraced safety as a core component of its culture. While issues remain to be addressed, the community's approach toward safety is overwhelmingly positive. What we need to see is that same commitment to safety taking hold throughout other modes of transportation, and lessons learned in one mode applied in a more pro-active manner in other modes.
A prime example would be the issue of average passenger weights. Taking into account the presence of, or lack thereof, additional weights such as baggage that might be present in operations from one mode to another, shouldn't we have a generally agreed upon average weight standard for the passengers themselves, applied across all modes of transportation? Might applying increased weight standards resulting from the Charlotte, North Carolina aviation incident of a couple of years ago to other modes of transportation have helped prevent incidents such as the Lake Charles, New York tour boat accident of a few days ago?
Looking forward, we need to move beyond the reactive but necessary "what we have seen or know," modal-specific approach toward investigations to a point where we supplement that knowledge and experience with a more pro-active "what if" phase that more readily shares and carries the lessons learned in one mode's accident investigations to all modes. That, I believe, is the next phase in the life cycle of the Board's work, and it is one that I encourage you to continue to partner with the Board in helping to achieve.
With that, I would like to open the floor to your thoughts and concerns.