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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Safety, It Takes A Village

Former NTSB Chief, James Hall, recently wrote an OP-ED piece, ABack Seat For Safety at the F.A.A. for the New York Times.  First of all, I have tremendous respect for Mr. Hall’s service to our country, both in his military career as well as his time at the NTSB.  Freedom and safety are both honorable pursuits.

I would have to disagree with his first point that the FAA and aircraft manufacturers have conspired, through their “cozy relationship” to place safety behind other objectives.  This statement is reinforced with an adjacent graphic that depicts an airliner going down in flames with the smoke trail formed into an “A-OK” hand signal.  The relationship between business and government is always complicated.  Extremely so in an industry as highly regulated as commercial aviation.  I think it is inappropriate to demonize either party by that characterization.

Chairman Hall’s assertion that government oversight “helps” prevent fatal accidents is spot on.  That oversight is an effective framework from which companies can submit for approval plans to achieve a safe operation.  The FAA is incapable of doing it on it’s own.  One of the biggest reasons is that the FAA does not, in most cases, have the expertise to adequately evaluate their areas of responsibility.  The government just doesn’t work that way.  Most operators and manufacturers have far more knowledge and experience in the technical areas than the government. Without private/government cooperation it would be like having people from the Postal Service overseeing FedEx.  That is why they need each other.  They need to work together.

A problem with rapidly advancing technology is that sometimes it outpaces the regulatory system.  Evolving battery technology is a very relevant topic.  Representatives from the transportation industry recently discussed it in front of the Board.  I think both the NTSB and Boeing’s Mike Sinnett agreed that the testing and failure analysis of the 787 batteries were not thorough enough.  Again, it was a team failure, not a conspiracy to subvert safety.  The FAA’s grounding of the airplane allowed for that testing to be revisited.  The plan that was certified achieved two objectives.  First, the potential for a battery event was lowered.  Second, since the probability of an event can never be zero, a modification was developed that would protect the aircraft in that case.   How can this be described as short sighted and a “regulatory failure”?  I might agree with Mr. Hall that the process up to the grounding could be called a “regulatory failure”, but certainly not the outcome.

Mr. Hall admonishes the FAA for certifying the modifications, “without even knowing the root cause of the battery problem”.   Before he became Chairman the NTSB issued its findings on the crash of United Airlines Flight 585, March 3, 1991, at Colorado Springs, Colorado.  The original probable cause for the accident published by the NTSB stated, “The National Transportation Safety Board, after an exhaustive investigation effort, could not identify conclusive evidence to explain the loss of United Airlines flight 585.”  The FAA made only recommendations after that accident.  It was not until USAir flight 427 crashed 3 ½ years later that the investigation was reopened during Mr. Hall’s tenure and targeted the rudder system malfunctions as well as other controlability issues.  I would consider that an ultimate success as well.

I also disagree with Mr. Hall on another point.  I don’t think additional direct congressional involvement would itself improve safety.  Introducing additional political considerations into safety would not be helpful.  The theatre of congressional testimony might be too big of a distraction from actual problem solving. We need only look at current events concerning the ATC system for evidence.

I will conclude the same way Mr. Hall did, acknowledging commercial aviation’s safety record.  To continue that track record I would strongly advocate a steady course.  Let’s continue to do the things that work. Most important among them is teamwork.  I maintain that all the stakeholders, FAA, NTSB, manufactures, operators, crews and passengers are all committed to a safe operation.  It takes every one of us, every day, every rivet, every flight to build this safety record.  We need to support and learn from each other, not get caught in the trap of a blame game.  That contest has only losers and no winners.

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