Remarks of Jim Hall
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the American Association of Airport Executives Annual Conference
Nashville, Tennessee, June 2, 1998
I want to thank you for inviting me here today. I hope you agree with me that through the years a spirit of cooperation has existed between the AAAE as an organization, and each of the airports represented here individually, on the one hand, and the National Transportation Safety Board, on the other.
The NTSB is, of course, by virtue of its mission intimately acquainted with numerous airport safety issues, and I’ll talk about some of those today. My interest in airport safety was intensified by my service on the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. During my tenure on that commission, I examined several major foreign airports, and 10 in the United States: Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and, of course, Washington, D.C.
As you may be aware, when we send a Go Team to a major accident, we organize our investigation into groups, each of which has a particular area of expertise. Of particular interest to you would of course be the "Airport Group". An airport group will be established if it becomes apparent that potential airport factors exist, such as airfield marking and lighting, safety areas, obstructions, runway friction, wildlife control, and/or emergency response. In that event you will be invited to provide expertise to participate on the group, which will then spend usually 3 to 10 days gathering factual information and documentation of airport factors.
Analysis, conclusions, and recommendations are not accomplished by the group, but are done by the Safety Board back in Washington. However, each party to an investigation has the right to submit its own analysis, conclusions and recommendations to the five-Member Board for its consideration.
Let me briefly discuss some airport issues that have arisen in our investigations. In 1984, the Safety Board asked the FAA to initiate research and development activities to establish the feasibility of soft-ground aircraft arresting systems and promulgate a design standard. The FAA agreed with the recommendation and, after testing a system at Atlantic City from 1992 to 1995, the FAA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey installed a prototype foam arrestor bed at the approach end of runway 22L at New York’s Kennedy International Airport.
This system is being evaluated through the 1998-99 winter season. The Safety Board is encouraged with the potential for such systems to arrest overrunning airplanes where runway constraints do not allow for full runway safety areas.
The Safety Board is increasingly concerned with the frequency of occurrence of veer-offs, overruns, and other related events, by large airplanes when runways are contaminated with ice, snow and/or slush. Of the 15 commercial airline accidents that occurred between 1982 and 1996 during periods of ice and snow contamination, the Board determined the contamination was a factor in 9 of them. Since then, the Safety Board staff is aware of 10 more excursions from runways or acute angle taxiways by air carrier airplanes, during periods of ice, snow or slush contamination.
We recommended that the FAA establish runway friction measurements that are operationally meaningful to pilots and air carriers for their slippery runway operations and minimum coefficient of friction levels for specific airplane types.
The FAA says that it agrees with the intent of the recommendation and that two working groups are working on the problem of specific runway friction values. In addition, the FAA reported that the American Society for Testing and Materials was forming a task group to develop a recommendation for a single friction reporting index for the aviation community.
A recurring issue that we’ve seen in several major investigations is the adequacy of Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting, or ARFF. The Safety Board’s investigation of an accident involving Air Canada flight 797, a DC-9 that landed with a fire on board at Greater Cincinnati International Airport on June 2, 1983, found that firefighters were unable to extinguish the cabin fire or extricate passengers. Twenty-three persons died.
Since the Air Canada accident, the Safety Board has found that firefighters have experienced similar difficulties in attempting to extinguish aircraft interior fires. For example, following the runway collision of a Northwest Airlines DC-9 and a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 at Detroit on December 3, 1990, firefighters were unable to extinguish interior fires until well after the fire burned through the top of the fuselage.
Firefighters again experienced difficulties in extinguishing interior fires following the collision of a USAir Boeing 737 and a Fairchild Metroliner at Los Angeles International Airport in February 1991, and following an aborted takeoff of a TWA Lockheed L-1011 at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in July 1992.
These examples suggest that the current mission set forth in 14 CFR Part 139 to "…provide an escape path from a burning airplane" no longer suffices. The Safety Board supports a full study of the mission statement by the FAA with a view towards providing adequate Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting resources to rapidly extinguish aircraft interior fires and to extricate aircraft occupants from such interior fires. The Board is considering this issue further in conjunction with the ongoing investigation of the Federal Express DC-10 fire that occurred at Stewart Airport, Newburgh, New York in 1996.
Most of you are no doubt familiar with the November 19, 1996, runway collision between a United Express Beech 1900C and a Beech King Air at Quincy, Illinois. All 14 persons on the two planes perished.
The responding Quincy Fire Department was unable to save the lives of any of the victims due to the distance of the closest fire fighting units from the accident site – about 10 miles – and the resultant time it took for the first fire-fighting units to arrive, 14 minutes. Many of the victims survived the impact but died in the post-crash fire.
The Safety Board determined that the presence and immediate response, within three minutes, of even a small aircraft rescue and fire fighting truck and properly trained fire fighters could have extinguished the fire, or at least extended the time for survivability, within the cabin of the Beech 1900C so that, at least some of the occupants of the commuter could have survived, until rescuers were able to successfully extricate them.
In other words, had ARFF protection been required for Part 135 operators as is required for Part 121 operators, lives might have been saved. The Safety Board is aware that smaller communities often lack adequate funds to provide ARFF protection for commuter service. Nevertheless, the Board believes that commuter airline passengers are entitled to protection from post-crash fires. The Safety Board recommended that, after developing the needed funding mechanisms, the FAA should require that ARFF protection be required where feasible at all airports served by scheduled commuter airlines with aircraft of 10 seats or more.
A major on-going investigation involves the crash of Korean Air flight 801, a Boeing 747, in Guam on August 6, 1997. Of the 254 persons aboard, 228 died. Although the aircraft crashed 3 nautical miles from the Agana airport at approximately 1:42 a.m., the first fire truck did not arrive at the scene until 2:34, some 52 minutes later.
The Board is examining communications procedures and equipment readiness issues in this investigation. We have not yet determined whether a more timely response and fire fighting intervention could have resulted in increased occupant survivability, but this accident illustrates the need to coordinate and define emergency notification procedures, and to conduct disaster exercises.
One of the recurring themes in these accidents is a need not just for proper equipment but also for proper training. Along those lines, I recently had the opportunity to visit AAAE headquarters near Washington and review the new desktop news and training system, ANTN Digicast. It’s great to see the capability of desktop videos used to support safety training at airports and I hope the airports will make such systems widely available to employees. The nice thing about having the information at your fingertips is that, if you find 10 minutes to spare, you can immediately call up what you need. Also, it is designed so that news and training can be easily customized for each airport, and each airport can add its own material.
I was pleased to see the focus of AAAE’s new system on safety training topics. You might know that the NTSB is currently working with AAAE staff on producing videos that will help airport personnel understand our agency’s needs and expectations when an incident occurs at an airport. We are ready to help on safety training content for any system that gets that information to front-line employees.
Let me talk about one final topic – our new responsibilities involving the families of victims of major aviation accidents, and what it means to you. As you all may know, about a year and half ago, the Board was given the responsibility of coordinating the federal government’s response to the needs and concerns of aviation accident victims and their families. While we did not seek this new duty, we believe it is a task worth doing and intend to pursue it with the same vigor and professionalism that has marked the Board during its 31-year history.
The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act was, in large measure, a reflection of the public sentiment that a better system was needed to deal with the victims and their families. The intense media scrutiny an airplane crash draws puts us all under the spotlight. An airport’s role in the immediate aftermath of a crash can range from serving a purely support role to, in the worst case scenario, being on your own for those early crucial hours. If an air carrier with little or no presence at your airport suffers a crash you may very well be the only people with a plan and the resources to carry it out.
While the Board will be working closely with the affected carrier to ensure that they have begun the process of notifying next of kin, it will be you who must deal with the family members and friends arriving at the airport in search of answers.
As confusing and difficult as it may be to have little or no support, it can be equally difficult to attempt to implement your disaster plan for family assistance when the affected airline is, at the same time, also activating its plan. TWA and the Port Authority both had response plans in the wake of the flight 800 tragedy, though neither party was entirely sure what the other intended to do. I compliment the Port Authority for taking charge in those chaotic early hours but I’m sure they would agree that some earlier coordination with the carriers that fly in and out of their airports would have helped everyone as they scrambled to assist the families arriving on scene.
Our family affairs staff spend a significant amount of time travelling the country speaking to groups like this. It is imperative that as may people in the aviation industry as possible know about the Board’s new mission and understand their role in it. The NTSB has been represented in the past year at exercises at LAX, Logan, Newark, Cleveland and Portland, Maine. We spoke at last year’s AAAE meeting in San Francisco and have met with the Association of Airport Fire Fighters, as well. We will continue to attend industry conferences and meetings and would gladly participate in any events you think will serve our common purpose.
What we offer are the resources of the entire federal government, organized and deployed in a way that can be integrated into your response. For instance, while the Board’s investigators do not use the incident command structure, our family affairs staff will make every effort to plug into your existing incident command system. The mobile morgue that we will deploy under most circumstances will serve as a complimentary unit to the existing medical examiner facilities at or near the crash site.
The NTSB will host an International Symposium on September 28 and 29 at the Crystal City Hyatt just across the river from Washington. The symposium is designed for industry, government and community officials to promote a better understanding of the federal government’s role with respect to family assistance at a transportation disaster and to allow individuals and organizations that might have to respond to such an event 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 assembled. Additional information will be available on the Board’s web site, www.ntsb.gov.
I hope you all will have the opportunity to meet with representatives of our family assistance staff and I urge you to develop you own family assistance plans. This might be an area where the AAAE can play a role.
Thank you for inviting me. I trust the National Transportation Safety Board and the AAAE will continue our close association for many years to come.