NTSB's Snit Fit

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In the 24/7/365 universe of the continuous news cycle, it's not unusual to see politicians, business people and even world leaders communicate—or should I say engage in snit fits—via the media. But the NTSB, arguably one of the better government agencies, has generally been above this sort of thing. Well, maybe not anymore. Over the weekend, the safety agency appears to have gotten into a spat with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). This culminated in the NTSB disqualifying NATCA as an active party in the Hudson River mid-air collision that occurred on August 8.

These are all government employees, of course, and it's both discouraging and embarrassing to see them deal with what is a serious accident probe by engaging in this kind of public one upsmanship. Evidently, the board was unhappy with some NATCA pronouncements on details of this investigation and, in an unusual press release, it said this violated a formal agreement on how parties to investigations are supposed to behave. But parties to investigations disclose details all the time and the smart ones are careful not to attach any conclusions to what they decide to reveal. This includes NTSB members and investigators themselves.

Although no one would mistake NATCA for an organization capable of much restraint in public pronouncements, it does have a legitimate role to play in accident investigations in which its members may be implicated. Everyone understands that NATCA's number one job is to assure its own continuing existence, but a fortunate byproduct of that is occasionally holding the FAA's feet to the fire on safety issues, thus it deserves a voice in this investigation.

The right way to handle things like this is to pick up the phone and have a friendly chat, not toss out parties to an investigation just because they cracked the door and let something slip out. One could hope for a little more maturity here, although one might not expect to see it.

Comments (17)

Perhaps its relevant to point out that the NTSB seems to have published an incorrect fact in a report on August 14th. Apparently NATCA did pick up the phone and have a chat — not sure how friendly — and the NTSB supposedly acknowledged the error but declined to retract it. That seems to be what led to NATCA cracking the door. And NATCA seems to have sent something out intentionally, not let it slip out inadvertently.

An air traffic controller's blog, "The Potomac Current and Undertow", has more on this aspect of the story: http://currentandundertow.blogspot.com/2009/08/no-party.html .

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | August 20, 2009 2:27 AM    Report this comment

I have followed many of the NTSB cases in AOPA Pilot and other magazines, and their actions in this case should surprise no one. It is amazing to me how often this supposedly impartial board sides with the FAA on pilot certificate action cases. I think it is time for congress to take action and conduct a review of this agency.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 20, 2009 5:11 AM    Report this comment

I concur with the first post. Mr. Bertorelli's essay completely missed the part about the NTSB's release of incorrect information, which was the genesis of the debacle.

I concur with the second post as well.

Posted by: Brian Veazey | August 20, 2009 7:14 AM    Report this comment

A new head of the NTSB was recently appointed -- an exceptionally unbureaucratic-looking woman. She's been on the board for some time, but her transportation expertise is largely with long-haul trucking. Her aviation background is nil. I reckon we're in for more "spats" under her leadership.

Posted by: Eric Gretsch | August 20, 2009 11:50 AM    Report this comment

NATCA agreed to keep quiet when they joined the investigation, as do all parties to an investigation.

NATCA did what they felt they had to do to get the NTSB to correct the record, and NTSB did what they had to do to preserve the sanctity of the investigative process. If the NTSB let this breach of protocol slide, it would set a bad precedent for the next time.

To quote Don Brown, former AvWeb columnist in his blog "Get the Flick" at http://gettheflick.blogspot.com/2009/08/extraordinary-correction.html:

"There’s no use denying it, this is turning into an awkward situation for all. I hope -- now -- everyone will take a step back, take a deep breath and shut up. My sympathies are obviously with NATCA but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the NTSB. Our relationship is too important to let it be defined by one mistake. So don’t let that happen. "

Posted by: Roger Parish | August 20, 2009 2:11 PM    Report this comment

The final NTSB report on this accident is months or maybe even a year away. And the final report is the one where all of the facts as they are known are laid out.

Prelim reports are provided to attempt to respond to the massive media blitz that happens anytime an aviation accident occurs. I'd bet that in future accidents the NTSB will keep their mouths shut after this debacle and just let the media speculate at will. Maybe "experts" like NATCA will fill the void.

NATCA took advantage of the opportunity to grandstand in front of the media. As an official party to the accident investigation they knew the rules going in. No surprise they got booted. They probably welcomed the opportunity to sling more mud at the feds in the media and get more on camera time.

Do you seriously believe that Congressional action will result in anything resembling an improvement?

As for the comments on the new head of NTSB. What's your point in regard to aviation accident investigations? Her job isnt to perform aviation accident investigations - she has qualified experts to do that who work for her. How many heads of large agencies, either government or non government have in depth knowledge of nuts and bolts details of all of the functions their agency performs?

Posted by: Mike Wills | August 20, 2009 2:12 PM    Report this comment

I'm kind of with NATCA on this one. Had the NTSB been willing to correct the error once they admitted one had been made, there would have been no need for NATCA to go public.

Posted by: James Clausing | August 20, 2009 5:12 PM    Report this comment

If you follow the link in DeLaHunt's post above it would appear that it was news to NATCA that they were a part of the investigation team, and that if they were, and shown the report prior to the NTSB release, they would have caught the error then and this whole thing never would have surfaced. While I'm no fan of NATCA (or any other union for that matter), they have a valid reason to scream foul.

Posted by: Roger Dugan | August 20, 2009 6:41 PM    Report this comment

I gotta side with the controllers here. After the NTSB made their pronouncement that was easily construed as controller malfeasance as the proximate cause of the accident the TV news folks were running with the story making it sound like it was all the "tower's" fault. Of all people the NTSB should know that the best of the news channels are ill equipped to report on anything to do with aviation and while they may or may not have uncovered something that required disciplinary action running to the press with it was truly bad form. This incident reminded me of Geraldo waving an AD around after the US Air ditching saying he had "broken the case" and had the "inside information" all of with was totally bogus. There was an AD issued for that airframe/engine combination but it had nothing to do with Canada Geese being inhaled into the engines.

Posted by: Mike Thompson | August 20, 2009 10:24 PM    Report this comment

NTSB flubbed it and acted stupid in booting NATCA. NATCA Needs to be envolved with the investigation. Who ever made the decision to boot NATCA, needs to take a deep breath and bring them back in on the on going program. I don't trust ether party by them selves

Posted by: Jerry Arthur | August 20, 2009 10:38 PM    Report this comment

The NTSB booted NATCA for doing what the NTSB did when they pointed at the controllers as possible cause for the accident, and subsequently issued a statement as such.

Posted by: Mark Manes | August 24, 2009 6:37 AM    Report this comment

I have to agree with the NATCA. The NTSB should have shut up in the first place. VFR is a "see and avoid" environment. The air traffic "controllers" do not control, they advise. It is still the pilot's responsibility. Open the corridor and raise the altitude, that is the solution. 1100 feet is plain stupid over the river. The airports could give up to 2500 ft over the river.

Posted by: Jim Bruchas | August 24, 2009 8:22 AM    Report this comment

What part of "frequency changed approved" does the NTSB not understand?

Posted by: John Schubert | August 24, 2009 8:54 AM    Report this comment

The most dismaying part of this dumb squabble is that it comes at a time when "all eyes are upon us". Thanks to the anti general-aviation sentiment created by congress and fuelled by the media, every GA incident is under intense scrutiny. We cannot afford to look like knuckleheads, and for this reason speculation and musings about what happened destroy our credibility and allow the non aviation public room to arrive and false or misinformed conclusions.

Everyone needs to get back to being professional here. Stick with the process; investigate, insiders keep your mouths shut, then deliver your conclusions and recommendations when completed in a factual and impartial manner.

Posted by: James Kabrajee | August 24, 2009 9:51 AM    Report this comment

I have been a victim of the NTSB. I completed an annual on an aircraft which later had an emergency with some injury to a passenger. I was informed by the FAA that their investagation found that I had nothing to do with the accident. I am now being sued because the NTSB without contacting me in any way determined that I was the cause of the accident.

Posted by: Ralph Huy | August 24, 2009 11:02 AM    Report this comment

The idea of unionized public employees at all, especially those involved in such a vital part of our safety, is anathema to democracy. Wasn't the point of unions to balance the power that private employers had over employees in bargaining because the government wasn't doing anything to keep the market free in the first place? Yet these people actually work FOR the governmant. The union is the wrong answer to the problem. If they were not unionized, the problem would get fixed because most of the workers would simply leave, or there would not be enough candidates. By perpetuating the pension system, the union, and the government conspire to keep power over the controllers who are bright, marketable professionals capable of handling themselves. Back to the point, no, NATCA should have no official voice in any investigation. They are biased, and are supposed to be biased. They should be able to represent their members from outside the investigation by submitting whatever they like, but should get no look behind the scenes anymore than anyone else gets.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 26, 2009 6:39 AM    Report this comment

A union exists in any field to protect its members from harm from the employer. In this case, a member appears to have been blamed prematurely by the NTSB and it is the unions job to hold the NTSB to the fire and refute premature conclusions. Unbelieveably, this premature conclusion was issued in a Press Release by the NTSB itself! The union DID ask NTSB to issue a correction, and it would have ended there if NTSB had seen the error of their ways. Since NTSB ignored the request, NATCA decided to issue their own correction in the same manner in which NTSB blundered in the first place. It is unfortunate that NTSB cannot see the damage that it caused and is so childish to ignore further input from NATCA on a case that clearly involves controllers and requires their expertise. I would fully expect Airbus to respond in kind if the NTSB issued a press release saying their A320 was deficient because it could not ingest birds which caused thier aircraft to crash into the Hudson.

Posted by: Trent Tyler | September 9, 2009 7:56 PM    Report this comment

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