Remarks of Jim Hall
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the Airline Emergency Planning & Managing Conference
Atlanta, Georgia, April 20, 1998
Thank you Mr. Armstrong for that introduction. I am pleased to be with you today representing the National Transportation Safety Board and am grateful to Delta Airlines for the invitation to come speak to all of you on an issue of great importance not only to my agency and your airlines, but to the international community as well.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Safety Board and I take pride in leading what many consider to be one of the finest transportation investigative bodies in the world. Over the past 3 decades, in cooperation with other organizations in the United States and abroad, the Safety Board has raised the level of national and international transportation safety. It has done so by improving and standardizing the investigative process in all areas of transportation, and has served as a model for other nations that have established similar agencies.
As you may know, the Safety Board is an independent agency of the United States government whose mission, since its creation in 1967, has been to determine the "probable cause" of accidents and to make recommendations to improve transportation safety and prevent future accidents. Over the years, Congress has recognized the value of the agency, first establishing its primacy over investigations conducted by other Federal agencies and then broadening its inter-modal jurisdiction.
The independence of the Safety Board and its clear mandate to conduct in-depth investigations, draw conclusions from its findings, and make recommendations to improve safety, without bias or undue influence from industry and other government agencies, are essential to maintaining the safety of the traveling public. It is not unusual for the Safety Board to address safety issues that are controversial or that may be critical of government or industry standards or operations.
It is clear that transportation in general and aviation in particular is becoming an increasingly international industry, with carriers operating globally, aircraft components being built by many countries, and with citizens of many nations aboard every flight. The International Air Transport Association has estimated that 1997 saw an 8 percent increase in passenger traffic worldwide, to almost one and a half billion passengers. More than 400 foreign carriers are licensed by our Department of Transportation to fly into the United States.
International economic concerns also bring increasing pressure to find out what went wrong in an accident and, if an airworthiness issue is involved, to fix it immediately. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that civilian aircraft, engines and parts provided $26 billion toward our balance of payments in international trade in 1995, the latest figures available. No manufacturer – indeed, no manufacturing country – wants a repeat of the Comet experience in the 1950s, when the world’s first commercial jet passenger airliner suffered a series of baffling crashes. By the time the problem was found and corrected, confidence in the aircraft had disappeared, the aircraft’s country of manufacture had lost its brief leadership in jet transportation, and other jet models were poised to garner the lion’s share of world airline orders.
In light of these economic and safety issues, it is necessary to keep in mind the dual nature of the Safety Board’s mission. First, of course, is to address the enormous safety and economic implications of a significant airline accident. Another element, however, is the emotional dimension of such a tragedy. The plight of family members who have lost someone in an air disaster has increasingly become the focus of the world’s media. Congress and President Clinton have agreed that this attention is both necessary and appropriate and have propelled my agency into the middle of the issue.
Before October 1996, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, the Safety Board’s primary mandate was to investigate transportation accidents. The new law gave the Safety Board the additional responsibility of aiding the families of victims of aircraft accidents occurring in U.S. territory.
What brought about this change? As a member of the NTSB, I have visited the scenes of four major non-survivable airline crashes: USAir flight 427, which killed 132 just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; American Eagle flight 4187, which killed 68 in Roselawn, Indiana, on October 31, 1994; ValuJet flight 592 that killed all 110 aboard in the Florida Everglades, on May 11, 1996; and TWA flight 800 that killed 230 off the coast of Long Island, New York, on July 17, 1996.
In all four accidents, as in past aviation crashes, 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 carrier. The local community responded with necessary emergency services and were supplemented by individual and group volunteers providing services such as grief counseling and food services.
For those of you who have been involved with a major aircraft crash, I do not need to tell you that, historically, the emergency response on occasion lacked organization, coordination, and perhaps even, 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 should not and cannot be tolerated. The world has changed and all of us involved in the events following major accidents have to change with it. Internationally, family members of victims are demanding more accountability in the aftermath of accidents. 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.
The Board did not seek the responsibility it was given in 1996 but the task was assigned to the NTSB because of our long and respected history at crash sites as the eyes and ears of the American people.
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 the federal 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 Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 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 disparity in the 1996 legislation was brought to light and corrected as a result of the Board’s experiences at the August 1997 crash of Korean Air Flight 801 on the island of Guam.
At the time of the accident, Korean Air was not required to file a family assistance plan with the United States government and the airline’s management was not aware of the Board’s new responsibilities. In addition, when the 747 crashed on Guam, killing more than 200 persons, KAL did not have a plan of its own to support the approximately 500 family members who immediately came to the island. It took several days for Board family affairs personnel to coordinate with the airline and the local government in the establishment of a more organized family support structure.
Nevertheless, I believe that, once its family assistance effort was established, Korean Air did a commendable job for the families. Virtually everything was thought of, from installing phones in the family center – so that relatives could call back to Korea free of charge – to providing free undergarments and toiletries to the families during their stay on Guam. The airline also provided free transportation and lodging for the families.
Consistent with our responsibilities and our belief that keeping the families informed is critical, the NTSB conducted daily briefings not only on the investigative process but also on the grueling task of recovering bodies and making positive identifications. The crash occurred during typhoon season and weather conditions were horrendous, hindering recovery efforts. Because the airline was unable to provide Korean interpreters for us, we relied on Korean-American residents of Guam, who volunteered their services. I mention this problem as a good example of the kinds of issues that arise at accident scenes that can be avoided if planned for.
As you may be aware, the NTSB does not have the ability to reject an airline’s plan. We do, however, have the right to comment on any plan, offering suggestions based on our years of accident response and our recent experiences with family assistance programs. In short, we function as a form of institutional memory for the airline industry, able to point out past failures and successes. Immediately after the passage of the 1996 Act, the NTSB worked closely with U.S. airlines and their representatives in Washington. The development of our response plan, along with the airlines emergency protocols, was worked out in close cooperation between the federal government and private industry. We are now working as closely with the international aviation community as they develop their response plans to be submitted in June of this year. I have urged my staff to make themselves available at any time to airlines worldwide that are concerned with ensuring an appropriate level of treatment to their passengers’ families.
The Department of Transportation has recently issued a letter to all foreign carriers having authority to serve the United States reminding them of the passage of the Act and of what their responsibilities are under that law. Those plans are due in June of this year and will be reviewed carefully by our staff. After the domestic airlines filed their plans last year, the Department issued a notice advising them that if the assurances made in those plans were not fulfilled because of neglect or bad faith the United States Government would take enforcement action against the carrier. I have every reason to believe the Department of Transportation will issue a similar advisory to the foreign carriers, a notice I hope they all take seriously.
At this point, allow me to give you some specifics about the NTSB’s family assistance. As I have said, our new office is comprised of seven individuals, all of whom have experience in some aspect of our response. One person is a forensic anthropologist, skilled in identifying individuals by extraordinary means. Another is former station manager with a major U.S. airlines, familiar with the workings of the industry with which we must have close and mutual cooperation. Yet another is a certified mental health professional with years of experience in mass disasters. The Deputy Director of the operation is a former U.S. Army Colonel who operated the military’s casualty notification and assistance system and who is responsible for creating our internal response plan.
As I mentioned, our family affairs operation is designed to harness the assets and abilities of the federal government. When we arrive on scene we are always careful to work in cooperation with the local medical examiner or coroner, whose responsibility it is to recover and identify victims. Nevertheless, I firmly believe no responsible local official will reject our offers of assistance, particularly given the track record we have already established.
I focus on the recovery and identification of remains specifically because every family member will tell you that in the immediate aftermath of a crash there is no greater interest for those who have lost a loved one. With all due respect to our investigators, for the victims’ families the cause of the crash is a secondary issue and the NTSB fully recognizes that the family affairs efforts must be focused on the quick and accurate identification of remains. We can bring to the scene a fully equipped mobile morgue and the staff required to operate it. The Department of Health and Human Services operates the National Disaster Medical System and their Disaster Mortuary or DMORT teams are fully partners with us in our response.
If conventional means of identification are not adequate, the Board has access to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the worlds’ leading DNA laboratory. In the case of the Korean Air crash, in which there were more than one hundred unidentified victims, the Korean government and the NTSB worked together on the DNA analysis.
In light of our ever present concerns about terrorism or sabotage, it is important to note that the 1996 Act requires the NTSB to conduct family affairs activities after a crash, "regardless of its cause." Therefore, in the unfortunate circumstance of an airliner crashing due to some criminal act, the NTSB would, in theory, still be the family assistance coordinator at the scene. The reality is that under the terms of our agreement with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI would take over much of the duties we normally have at a crash scene. Nevertheless, the Board would still be present.
As you might imagine, this and a host of other scenarios pose unique challenges, particularly for an agency with approximately 400 staff members and an annual budget of around $50 million. The only way in which the NTSB has enjoyed its 31-year run of success is by working closely with all affected parties, and coordinating our activities to take advantage of outside resources. I point to the work of Continental and Northwest on behalf of Korean Air and the NTSB in the wake of the Guam tragedy as a good example of the type of partnership that has developed over the last 18 months since the passage of the 1996 Act. Continental Micronesia assisted Korean Air in the establishment of a family assistance center in the hours after the crash and, along with Northwest Airlines, was instrumental in helping the Board fly material and personnel to Guam in an expedited fashion. This included, by the way, three search and rescue dogs who, along with their handlers, were flown first class on Northwest.
In an effort to continue our tradition and apply it to new challenges, the National Transportation Safety Board, on September 28 and 29, will host an international symposium in Arlington, Virginia for industry, government and community officials to promote a better understanding of the federal government’s role with respect to families at a transportation disaster and to allow individuals and organizations that might have to respond in the event of such an accident to discuss experiences and learn new techniques in disaster resource management. I urge all of you to attend what will be the first international gathering of this kind ever conducted.
Gatherings like this one also serve a useful purpose and I encourage another airline to pick up the baton and next year sponsor a similar event. I applaud Delta Airlines for their sponsorship and trust that in the next two days all of you will tackle many important issues and, in your breakout sessions, roll up your sleeves and go to work.
Globally, all of our citizens board airplanes, buses, ships and trains in pursuit of recreation and business. It is our mission and duty to maintain a constant and vigilant effort to keep transportation safe for all of the world’s travelers and ensure that in the wake of a tragedy, compassionate and humane treatment is given to those who need it the most. This task will be much easier if we work together to achieve this end.
As Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and one of its founding fathers once said, "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government." I believe it is this simple phrase that describes the mission and goals of the National Transportation Safety Board.