Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Before the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications
March 26, 1998
Good morning Madam chairwoman, members of the Senate committee, committee staff and other distinguished persons at today’s hearing. It is an honor to be asked to discuss the functions of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and its relationship with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. When I complete my prepared remarks, I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.
The NTSB was formed as an independent government agency in 1967 – first within to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation for administrative purposes and then becoming fully independent in 1974. Over the past 31 years it has been the transportation accident investigation authority of the United States. The NTSB has developed its processes and procedures based on its own experience and on the experience of others who have investigated transportation accidents around the world. Many things have changed in these three decades and both the policies of the Board and its legislation have evolved. Some of that evolution has been prompted by changes in public attitudes and technology. And some has been based on the Board’s best judgments of what the future is likely to hold for transportation.
One of my predecessors, Jim Burnett, appeared twice before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation; first during consideration of the bill that created the Canadian Aviation Safety Board and later during consideration of the bill creating the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board, or TSB. I have worked with the TSB, initially as an NTSB Member and then, for the past 4 years, as NTSB Chairman. There are many similarities between our agencies, as there are between the nations we represent. There are also, of course, numerous differences, and while I will discuss some things that work in the United States, I acknowledge that not all will necessarily be appropriate for Canada.
Both the NTSB and the started with an approach to independent aviation accident investigation that was separate from assigning blame or liability and later carried that principle over to accident investigation in other modes of transportation.
Nations compete vigorously in many of their activities. Transportation accident investigation is an exception. In this field there is extensive cooperation. The cooperation seems to be built on a combination of professional respect, good will and self interest. Transportation vehicles carry people and products around the world. Vehicles built in one nation are likely to be used in many others. We rely on each other’s navigation systems, fuel, ports, airports and highways. When there is an accident, individuals and products of numerous nations are likely to be involved. They all have an interest in investigating the accidents and eliminating the risks that led to the accident – no matter where they are.
There are, of course, at the same time, many competing interests in determining liability. To benefit from the efficiencies of cooperation, the accident investigation procedures have to be kept as far as possible from the adversarial role of the courts and from determining blame and liability.
There are many views on what constitutes independent transportation accident investigation. A handful of nations have established what they see as multi-modal transportation safety bodies. The two North American transportation safety boards appear to be unique in their degree of independence. The closeness of their underlying safety philosophies combined with geographic proximity has promoted a very constructive relationship between the NTSB and the TSB. That relationship starts with the Chairman of the TSB and my office. It extends right down to the professional staff of both agencies.
For example, we have exchanged investigators on assignments for extended periods of time. Investigators from both Boards work together on many accidents and they exchange technical information. The two agencies cooperate and share technology to analyze data from aircraft "black boxes." They provide information to one another for safety studies. On occasions when there is a shared safety interest, we have developed parallel recommendations and issued them simultaneously.
The mandates and jurisdictions of the two agencies are similar but there are some differences. The Canadian mandate to investigate incidents is more explicit than ours and their coverage of marine accidents and incidents is a little broader than ours. On the other hand, we have a broader mandate for pipeline investigations. With the cooperation of the states we can investigate highway accidents. In the United States, we have an oversight role that I do not see in the Canadian Board.
Each Board has some features that reflect the needs of the nation it serves. Just how we go about our activities is probably not as important as what we accomplish. We both investigate and analyze accidents and incidents and conduct studies that point out safety shortcomings and we make recommendations that are designed to minimize transportation system risks. We work together internationally. Together we helped found the International Transportation Safety Association. We work cooperatively at the International Civil Aviation Organization and at the International Maritime Organization. Our staffs belong to professional associations such as the Marine Accident Investigator’s International Forum and the International Society of Air Safety Investigators. There are many other examples, but I believe that you see the overall level of cooperation and trust in each other’s work.
There are some features I believe should be in every transportation safety board, and that we see in both the United States and Canada. The Boards should have a clear and easily understood mandate. The agencies need to be independent, particularly from transportation regulators and police. They need to be able to exercise discretion in deciding what to investigate and to what depth. They need the freedom to issue findings and recommendations. They should not become government regulators. The investigators need strong powers to get the information they require for their investigations. They should not determine blame or liability. They can have strong powers because their work does not lead to fines or prison sentences. They need the resources to do solid professional work that will stand the scrutiny of manufacturers, operators, government regulators, the news media and the public. The reports of the Board should always be made public if they expect to gain and hold the public’s trust.
I would like to mention some new developments – developments that we have recently dealt with or that we see coming over the horizon.
The first is in the area of information management and communications. More and more information is being made available, particularly through the Internet. We have to find better ways to sift through the information quickly so we can use what is relevant. One way that we are improving our ability to obtain relevant information is through the efforts of the International Transportation Safety Association, where we exchange information directly with other organizations that are in our business.
Communications are now global with 24-hour news organizations such as CNN and others based overseas. And it seems that as the amount of information increases, the public‘s appetite for it increases, too. More and more individuals and organizations claim to be experts and they obtain credibility because their views are extensively broadcast on television. They have quick, glib and plausible answers to questions that can only be reliably answered by painstaking, scientifically based investigative work. We cannot and would not want to stop the free flow of information. Therefore we must employ the quickest means available to get reliable information. We must train our investigators to be thorough and careful and not to speculate. We hope in the end the public will learn that if they want reliable analysis they will have to wait a while. At the same time, we have to be energetic about making available the reliable factual information that we have.
The skills of our investigators are being challenged by rapid changes in technology and by the necessity to look at the management and safety culture of companies, not just at the wreckage and those involved directly in operations. Training has always been important and the accelerated pace of change will make it even more important in the future.
Also, people and products constantly move across international boundaries. Not just between the U.S. and Canada, but all over the world. As the level of activity increases, accidents will occur more frequently in remote and less developed parts of the world. That applies to both U.S.-manufactured aircraft and the turbo-prop and jet passenger aircraft manufactured in Canada. We will both have to be able to quickly deploy our resources to accident sites and ensure that there are competent objective investigations that produce timely and reliable information about the safety issues that need to be addressed. Respecting the sovereignty of the state where the accident occurred will demand as much skill in diplomacy as it does in investigation.
The most recent change to our responsibilities relates to coordinating federal assistance to families of accident victims. For 30 years, the Safety Board’s primary mandate has been, and continues to be, the investigation of transportation accidents. In October 1996, legislation gave the NTSB this family-related responsibility for aviation disasters. In general, under the new authority, the NTSB will provide family members with speedy and accurate information about the accident and recovery efforts, support local efforts in the recovery and identification of victims, and other assistance as deemed necessary. Airlines must also submit emergency plans to us and the U.S. Department of Transportation for review.
What brought about this change? For decades, following major aviation crashes in the United States, the unpleasant duty of notifying next of kin, making arrangements for transporting family members to a location near the accident site, and returning victims’ remains has been the responsibility of the air carrier. The local community responded with necessary emergency services and were sometimes supplemented by individual and group volunteers providing services such as grief counseling and food services.
In January 1995, when I chaired the Safety Board’s public hearing on the Aliquippa crash, I met with the victims’ family members and became convinced that something must be done to address the concerns they expressed to me.
For those of you who have been involved with a major aircraft crash, I do not need to tell you that, historically, the affected airline’s response frequently lacked organization, coordination, and far too often, compassion. Based on Congressional testimony and other forums, we’ve heard numerous horror stories -- constant busy signals from the airline’s 800 accident information number; misidentified remains; personal effects being mishandled; unidentified remains not handled with dignity, including mass burials without informing families; and the use of confidential information obtained during this grief process against families in court.
I think we can all agree that this type of treatment can no longer be tolerated. The world has changed and all of us involved in the events following major accidents have to change with it. For instance, the recent SilkAir accident in Sumatra and the turbulence accident over the Pacific Ocean involving United Airlines were both major international media events. Family members of victims, not just in the United States, are demanding more accountability in the aftermath of accidents such as these. Their five major concerns are in the areas of initial notification of the accident, recovery and identification of victims, disposition of unidentifiable remains, return of personal effects, and access to investigative information.
These concerns are shared by family members of victims of accidents that occur in the United States, Africa or Asia – it is a common human need that goes beyond international borders. And, an additional concern in our increasingly international aviation system is the need for sensitivity to many religions, cultures and languages.
Following that meeting with the Pittsburgh families, I initiated a meeting with the Board of the Air Transport Association, expressing my concern about the way family members are treated following major accidents and asking that they develop a better way to handle the situation. I was sorry to see in the following months that the industry was unable to satisfactorily respond to that request.
Finally, particularly following the ValuJet and TWA accidents, legislation was passed. This was a case where the lack of action on the part of private industry led to government intervention. This was not our preferred course, but I think Congress and the President acted responsibly in assigning this task to someone, and I believe they assigned it to us because of the Safety Board’s long and respected history at crash sites as the eyes and ears of the American people.
Our family assistance plan has been used four times since passage of the law. Our new Office of Family Assistance fills the void that I previously mentioned - as a coordinator to integrate the major resources of the federal government and other organizations to support the efforts of the local and state government and the airline to meet the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families. Family counseling, victim identification and forensic services, communicating with foreign governments, and translation services, are just a few of the areas in which we in government can help local authorities and the airlines deal more effectively with a major aviation disaster.
As many of you know, Congress recently passed legislation amending the law to require foreign carriers flying in or out of the United States to file family assistance plans and fulfill the same family support requirements as required by their domestic counterparts.
This was new territory for us, and we had to proceed slowly to maintain a proper separation between our investigative responsibilities and our new responsibilities with the families.
Our Office of Family Affairs staff will be more than happy to work closely with you in the future to share their experiences on setting up our operation. I have found that our family assistance activity is one of the most satisfying programs that I’ve been associated with in my nearly 20 years of government service at both the federal and State level.
That concludes my prepared remarks. I hope that this overview was helpful and I am ready to answer any questions you may have.