Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Conference on Reinventing U.S. Aviation Security
December 9, 1996, Arlington, Virginia
Thank you for inviting me today to join in this discussion on
airline safety and security, and for giving me an opportunity
to update you on an issue that has received much prominence this
year, the treatment of families of victims of aviation disasters.
The National Transportation Safety Board was established almost
30 years ago as an independent federal agency charged with investigating
major transportation accidents to determine cause and issue safety
recommendations aimed at ensuring that such accidents don't happen
again. We have issued more than 10,000 recommendations in that
time, which have led to many of the safety innovations you are
familiar with; for example, floor-level escape lighting, ground
proximity warning systems, terminal doppler radar, and fire-blocking
materials for airliner interiors. We are the eyes and ears of
the American people at accident sites.
The loss of TWA flight 800 in July not only plunged our nation
into mourning, it plunged the aviation industry into a period
of self evaluation. Information revealed from our investigation
of the ValuJet crash added to this atmosphere. The public outcry
over the possible causes of these tragedies and the increasingly
vocal complaints from family members of the victims have resulted
in an industry much different from the one that existed just 6
As you know, the President formed the White House Commission on
Aviation Safety and Security during the summer, and I am honored
to have been asked to serve as a Commissioner. I attended the
latest Commission meeting last Thursday, and on Friday I hosted
the Commission at Safety Board headquarters to brief them on the
Although a review of airline safety and security is warranted,
we should never overlook the fact that we have an extremely safe
system. Last year, the major U.S. scheduled airlines had one fatal
accident for every 4 million flights! But when things go wrong,
it is the Safety Board's job to find out why.
The TWA investigation has been unprecedented in its human scope
and in its expense. We have been on-scene for almost 5 months
- a record. Our latest estimates are that this investigation will
cost $27 million, not counting salaries of government employees
that would have been paid anyway - that is, representatives from
the NTSB, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Navy, FEMA and others.
Consider that the entire yearly budget of the NTSB is just over
This is not the first time that the Board has addressed the issue
of airline security. Following the investigation of the crash
of TWA flight 841 into the Ionian Sea in September 1974, the Safety
Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the
detonation of an explosive device within the aft cargo compartment
of the aircraft that rendered the aircraft uncontrollable. On
January 10, 1975, the Safety Board issued the following safety
recommendations to the FAA:
All of these recommendations were complied with in one way or
the other, but remember, this was 20 years ago. Technologies needed
to maintain airline security must keep up with the technologies
available to those who wish to breach that security. We have formed
a Security Factors Group that is reviewing aspects of the security
I have surveyed the security programs at 10 airports, both here
and abroad. Once our Security Factors Group has completed its
assessment, it will determine how the Board can best address any
issues uncovered. Initial observations from the group were conveyed
to the Gore Commission during the formulation of their recent
recommendations on security.
As far as the investigation itself, we will shortly begin constructing
a three-dimensional mock-up of a major portion of the aircraft's
wreckage. Although we have most of the wreckage, we are continuing
trawling operations off the Long Island coast to find every bit
of debris possible. We have just retained the California Institute
of Technology to determine the explosive characteristics of the
fuel that was aboard flight 800. We will continue to work closely
with the FBI and all other parties until we are convinced we have
pursued every possible credible scenario that could have led to
I want to turn now to what has become a new responsibility for
the Safety Board, the treatment of family members of victims of
air disasters. We have always made special efforts to keep families
informed on the progress of our investigations, but the information
they receive from other parties has been lacking, in their estimation.
Since the dawn of commercial aviation, the unpleasant duty of
notifying next of kin after airline accidents has fallen upon
the airline that had the accident, and that carrier often made
arrangements for the transportation of family members to a location
near the accident site, and for the shipment of victims' remains.
Carrier responsibility in this area was tacitly recognized by
law in the Federal Aviation Act.
Whether or not this modus operandi was ever adequate to
address the needs of victims' family members, it is clear that
the way things used to be done is not adequate today. The world
has changed and all of us involved in the events following major
airline accidents have to change with it. The combination of a
litigious society, expanded and aggressive 24-hour news coverage,
and perhaps a mistrust of authority all have contributed to this
The watershed event was the December 1988 bombing of Pan American
flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Family members who believed
they were not treated with the sensitivity and respect they expected
and felt they deserved, and believed that the government had not
done all that it could, formed a support group. A Presidential
commission made numerous recommendations on improving airline
security, and it also made recommendations on the treatment of
As a result, the State Department recognized that families of
American citizens who die in an aviation disaster overseas deserve
some services from their government. At last year's American Airlines
accident in Colombia, the State Department dispatched a Fly-Away
Team to do what was necessary to facilitate repatriation of the
victims, including body identification.
Recently, domestic family support groups were established after
the USAir accident near Pittsburgh and the American Eagle accident
in Roselawn, Indiana, both in late 1994. After meeting with the
families at our Pittsburgh hearing, I became convinced that the
government and the airlines must address their legitimate concerns.
In September, President Clinton issued a directive naming the
NTSB as the coordinator of federal services to families of victims
of transportation accidents, and in October he signed legislation
that gives us that responsibility for aviation disasters. I want
to make it clear that I did not seek this responsibility for the
Board; I had hoped that it could be handled without federal intervention.
But Congress and the President have spoken, and I intend for the
Board to fulfill its new responsibility with the same professionalism
that has characterized its investigative activities for 3 decades.
Under this new authority:
Another provision of the Act calls on the Secretary of Transportation
to appoint a task force composed of family members and representatives
of government and private relief agencies. This task force will
have quite a full plate before it. It is charged with developing
a model plan to assist airlines in responding to aircraft accidents.
This includes recommendations on:
I have directed Safety Board staff to go one more step beyond
this task force, by forming an advisory committee of family members
who will consult with us on such issues as the handling of personal
effects and the desirability of aggressive DNA testing on all
recovered remains. We will want the family members themselves
to come up with the best procedures so that future activities
will be directed with the benefit of their first-hand experience.
We launched our first family assistance team since passage of
the Act with our Go-Team to the runway collision at Quincy, Illinois
last month. We are continuing to formulate how best to carry out
our responsibilities. One problem is that, although agencies and
private organizations are only too happy to help us, they will
do so only on a reimbursable basis, and Congress appropriated
no funds for the support of this responsibility.
Our investigations of flight 800 and ValuJet are ongoing, and
we recently concluded a week-long hearing on the ValuJet accident
in Miami. We will soon be conducting a public hearing on the Delta
Airlines uncontained engine failure accident in Pensacola last
summer, which took the lives of two passengers. The Board has
not yet decided whether to convene a hearing on the TWA accident.
Meanwhile, we continue to investigate about 2,000 general aviation
accidents a year.
Gerry and I will be happy to answer your questions on aviation
safety and security, or the Gore Commission in particular.