With the Senate’s confirmation Monday of Jennifer Homendy as the Chairman of the NTSB, I’ll resist cliches about frying pans and fires and instead offer the observation that she has work to do. In my view, the NTSB was once the gold standard for efficient, competent government agencies, but of late, it has been less impressive. It hasn’t quite come asunder, but it could and should be doing better than it is.
Since our beat around here is general aviation, that’s what I’ll focus on. The airlines get more than their share of love from both the FAA and the NTSB while GA enjoys benign neglect. (That’s not all bad, by the way.) My beefs are several. First of all, the agency continues to drag its feet on closing accident investigations with no apparent accountability or improvement. Side note: The investigations appear to be uneven in quality and thoroughness.
Not so long ago, you could expect an investigation to close to a final report in about a year, give or take a few months. Now, I routinely see open investigations that are two years or older. That is, when I can find them. Which gets me to beef number two: To call the new online database system the NTSB launched last fall a hot mess is generous. It’s a difficult-to-use kludge that returns uneven results and, at least for me, vastly slows finding the kind of broad data-driven things I like to work on.
The NTSB hailed the so-called CAROL system as a step forward but I find it lacking. While it does offer direct access to the digital dockets, it lacks a quick-view utility that the previous system had. You could, for example, click on the HTML source and skim the material before digging further. Now you have to download a portion of the docket to see what’s there. It’s literally like fishing. I have a couple of projects on the back burner because I lack the time to grind through this problem.
And now beef number three: The NTSB is not doing this work, either. While I’m not convinced there are new and mysterious accident trends percolating in the world of GA, how would you know if you don’t look? I feel like I’m flying increasingly blind on accurate accident rates. Part of the NTSB’s imprimatur is enterprise research that determines accident cause trends and to make recommendations to address these. I care less about the recommendations—in fact, I care very little—than I do the underlying findings that make them necessary. If we in the industry know what the trends are, we can pretty well figure out how to address them in various ways, jollied along by the insurance companies.
We don’t need the NTSB, which is indifferent to GA, nor the FAA, which is sometimes hostile, to tell us how fix things. Is anyone arguing for more regulation to push down the GA overall and fatal accident rate? If so, do let me know. On the plus side, the board now has two GA-experienced members in vice-chairman Bruce Landsberg, formerly of Flight Safety and the old AOPA Air Safety Foundation, and Michael Graham, a naval aviator who did a stint on the GA/bizjet side of Textron. Both of these members have air safety bona fides and it shows in the board meetings.
As for Ms. Homendy, she is not a pilot so let me just dispense with that by noting that she is not a pipeline welder, a railroad bridge engineer or a licensed ship captain, either. The chairman’s job is still, as it has always been, leadership of what is a competent and well-resourced staff of investigators, to set the tone and determine the priorities. For all I know, the marine and pipeline industry have the same complaints we do in general aviation, but whether they do or they don’t, the hoped-for-solution is to reach down into the clanking machinery and blow the sand out of the gears. In other words, it’s a management challenge and don’t pretend it’s an easy one.
Let’s give it a year and see what improves.