Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board MemberTestimony of
Deborah A.P. Hersman, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security
U. S. Senate
Reauthorization of the National Transportation Safety Board
Washington, DC
October 29, 2009


Good morning, Chairman Dorgan, Ranking Member DeMint, and members of the Subcommittee.  As Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss our request for reauthorization.  The members and staff of this Committee, and especially of this Subcommittee, historically have been champions of the NTSB and its important mission.  On behalf of our current 391 employees, I want to thank you for your unfailing support throughout our history.

Our core mission is to investigate transportation accidents to determine what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and what can be done to keep it from happening again.  Today, we continue working hard to improve safety in a transportation world that looks very little like it did when we began in 1967.  In the 42 years since our beginning, the mission of the agency has not changed, but the world has.  Transportation accidents are increasingly complex as machines and technology become more and more sophisticated.  Our challenge today is to remain highly skilled and up-do-date with an expert technical staff and state-of-the-art investigative tools to competently and efficiently conduct the thorough investigations you and the American people have come to expect and deserve.

To give you a glimpse of the work we do, let me tell you what we have accomplished in fiscal year 2009.  We issued 18 major accident investigation reports and 2 summary reports.  In addition, we produced 15 brief reports, hundreds of regional aviation safety accident briefs, and a Special Investigation Report on pedal misapplications.  We conducted 13 public or “sunshine” meetings on 14 separate accident reports.  We also conducted 6 public hearings on accidents that are still under investigation, including:

NTSB – FY 2009 At A Glance

Established:

April, 1967

Number of Employees: (by HQ and Regions)

HQ:  299
Regional:  92

Major Reports and Products Adopted by the Board:

 18 Major Reports
2 Summary Reports
1 Special Investigation Report
1 Special Investigation Report
15 Brief Reports

Major Accident Launches:

18

Other Accident Launches:

198

International Accident Launches:

10

Public Hearings:

6

Recommendations Issued:

174

Recommendations Closed:

87 Closed Acceptable Status
22 Closed Unacceptable Status

Vehicle Recorder Readouts:

374

Materials Laboratory Examination Reports:

110

During my tenure on the Board, I have accompanied our investigators on 17 major accident launches.  I have watched them drop whatever they were doing, grab their go-bags, and head to an accident scene to get there often before the smoke has cleared.  Once on scene, our investigators hardly stop to rest or eat.  Some begin the meticulous work of documenting the scene in minute detail, while others seek out witnesses and survivors.  While investigators begin piecing together the accident sequence, our Transportation Disaster Assistance team reaches out to victims and their families to help them begin navigating through shock, grief, and eventually, healing. No one wants a serious accident to ever occur, but when one does and we send a launch team, I am always amazed and proud of the work our investigation team performs, both on-scene and then later when they return to our offices and labs to continue solving the puzzle.

In fiscal year 2009, we launched to 18 major accidents, including:

Map showing area accident launches in general aviation

In addition to these major accidents, we also launched investigators to 198 accidents, primarily in general aviation, to conduct smaller-scale investigations.  We also sent accredited representatives to support 10 foreign accidents including the Air France A330 crash in the Atlantic Ocean on July 1, 2009, the crash of a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter in the sea near St. Johns, Newfoundland, on March 12, 2009, and the crash of a Learjet Model 45 near Mexico City on November 4, 2008.

As you know, the end products of our investigations are our safety recommendations to government agencies, transportation operators, and other stakeholders to improve transportation safety.  In our 40-year history, we have issued more than 12,000 recommendations, about 80% of which have been closed in an acceptable status.  Last year alone, we issued 174 new recommendations.  We also closed 109 older recommendations, 87 of those in an acceptable status.  Of course, the success of our recommendations is often directly due to the work of our advocates in Congress, many of whom are on this Committee.  For example, in 2007, Congress made huge strides in advancing railroad safety with the passage of the Federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-432).  This one historic bill addressed significant safety issues and long-standing recommendations directed to the rail industry, namely, hours of service and positive train control.  The NTSB appreciates your listening to us regarding these recommendations.
One of the busiest parts of our agency—and it is getting busier all the time—is our laboratory.  In our vehicle recorder lab, on-board vehicle recorders are downloaded and studied to support accident investigations.  In FY 2009, our lab processed 374 cockpit voice and flight data recorders, along with digital cameras, video recordings, GPS navigations devices, cockpit displays and engine monitoring devices.  About 30% of our flight data and voice recorder readouts support foreign accident investigations.  The workload in the vehicle recorder lab continues to grow as the number and complexity of recording devices continually expands.  In addition, our materials lab examined evidence collected at accident scenes—anything from aircraft engines to pieces of highways—in search of clues to the causes of accidents.  Last year, the materials lab produced 110 separate reports. 

Table showing the quanity of recorders read by calendar year.

Like many government agencies, the NTSB is being called upon to accomplish its goals with fewer resources.  We are rising to the challenge, but it is difficult, and we will need the continued support of Congress.  In 2003, the NTSB completed 18 major products and four public hearings with 427 employees.  In 2009, we will complete the same number of major products and two additional hearings but with 33 fewer people.  In addition, our hiring mix has had to change in recent years to meet regulatory standards in such areas as computer security and contracting requirements. We thus have not been able to focus all of our recent hiring on adding or replacing investigators or transportation specialists.

Table showing full-time equivalent staffing from fiscal year 2001 to 2010

So how do we accomplish what we do?  We have an extraordinary staff.  They are smart, they are curious, they love to solve mysteries, and they have an unparalleled passion for transportation safety.  This unique mixture of talent and enthusiasm is why they have been able to tell us the causes of hundreds of accidents, explaining why these tragedies happened and what should be done so that they never happen again somewhere else.  These dedicated professionals do this invaluable work at an annual cost of about 30 cents per American.

As we begin this dialogue to reauthorize the NTSB, we are asking for technical changes that clarify our statute and a few modest substantive changes that we believe will improve our ability to thoroughly investigate significant accidents: 

In terms of resources, we are asking that the Congress authorize our staffing and funding as follows:

The NTSB is the safety conscience and compass of the transportation industry.  We are uniquely situated to think about transportation safety in the ideal and then point the way toward a safer transportation system.  As an independent, non-regulatory agency, we can articulate needed safety improvements and innovations without having to prove that they are cost beneficial, profit generating, or politically feasible. Furthermore, through our recommendations, we can reach out directly to industry leaders, other government agencies, and policy makers such as the members of this Committee. 

As I mentioned earlier, the transportation world is not the same as it was in 1967.  With the help of Congress, we are currently up to the challenge, and with your continued support, we will keep pace with changes that are occurring in transportation, sometimes at breathtaking speed.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you about this remarkable agency and its dedicated people.  I will be happy to answer your questions.


Footnote:

1. Assumes salaries increase by 2% each year beginning with Calendar 2010, and an inflation factor of .5%.