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Conference on Reinventing U.S. Aviation Security, Arlington, Virginia
Jim Hall
Conference on Reinventing U.S. Aviation Security, 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 months ago.

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 TWA investigation.

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 $40 million.

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:

  • Re-emphasize to the nations served by American flag carriers the importance of participating in the Aviation Security Technical Assistance Program.
  • Establish an Aviation Security Office in the FAA's Europe, Africa and Middle East Regional Headquarters.
  • Expedite the development and use of suitable explosives detection equipment to preclude the introduction of explosive devices on board an aircraft.
  • Ensure that the aircraft security programs of U.S. air carriers contain provisions that are more responsive to high risk situations in international as well as domestic operations.

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 system.

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 the explosion.

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 new environment.

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 families.

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:

  • The NTSB will coordinate the provision of federal services to the families of victims.
  • These could include, but are not limited to, providing speedy and accurate information about the accident and recovery efforts, ensuring the families who wish to travel to the accident site receive all necessary assistance, and arranging opportunities for counseling and other support.
  • The NTSB will work with State and local authorities and with private relief organizations to ensure appropirate coordination of the services they provide with those of the federal government.
  • The following federal agencies will cooperate fully with the Safety Board in these efforts: the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services and Transportation, and FEMA.

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:

  • Methods to ensure that attorneys and the news media do not intrude on the privacy of families;
  • Methods to improve the timeliness of the notification provided by air carriers to the families of accident victims;
  • How families of non-American citizens can receive appropriate assistance; and
  • How the military can be used to aid in body identification.

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.


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