ANALYSIS: NTSB defends handling of Asiana, Southwest crashes

Washington DC
This story is sourced from Pro
See more Pro news »

Criticism from a pilots' union about the volume of information released in the days immediately following the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 has not affected how the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has handled two subsequent jetliner crashes, according to the NTSB.

Still, some industry observers note the board's response to a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 crash in New York two weeks later was far more reserved, possibly due to increased industry or media pressure or the less-severe nature of that crash.

"We are an independent, open, transparent agency, and we think its our responsibility to communicate with the public in an appropriate time frame," the board tells Flightglobal, adding it has not changed how it releases information.

Criticism came from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in the days after the Asiana Boeing 777-200ER slammed into a seawall on approach to San Francisco International airport 6 July, causing the aircraft's tail to separate, killing three passengers and injuring hundreds.

The union, which represents pilots at US- and Canadian-based airlines, said the flurry of technical flight information released after the crash unfairly implicated the pilots.

Response to Asiana 214

NTSB chair Deborah Hersman held a series of press conferences in the days after the accident.

On 7 July, Hersman said the cockpit voice and flight data recorders showed that airspeed fell below target during approach and that one pilot called for more speed seven seconds before the crash. The aircraft's stick shaker activated, indicating a stall, Hersman added, noting the engines appeared to respond normally. Asiana confirmed the same day there was no indication of mechanical problems.

The next day, Hersman said the NTSB was reviewing the pilots' activities in the days before the crash. She said pilots disengaged the autopilot 82s before impact, and that three seconds before impact the aircraft slowed to 103kt, "significantly slower" than it should have been.

In following days Hersman revealed that the pilot flying had completed only 10 legs in the 777 and that the monitoring pilot was on his first training trip.

ALPA's first volley came 8 July, when it issued a press release saying it was "stunned by the amount of detailed operational data" released so early in the investigation.

"Publicising this data before all of it can be collected and analysed leads to erroneous conclusions," the union said.

ALPA president Lee Moak later said the NTSB deviated from "internationally accepted and time-proven investigative processes ... in favor of increased media exposure and sensationalism."

Others also think the NTSB went too far.

"I was taken aback by [Hersman's] pronouncements," Hans Weber, president of aviation consultancy TECOP International tells Flightglobal. "At this early in the investigation, her pronouncements led to the conclusion ... that it was pilot error."

Weber, who consulted the FAA for 21 years on issues related to aviation safety, thinks Hersman's should have waited until the NTSB's staff completed its investigation.

"When she spoke it wasn't clear if there was a contributing factor of some obscure element of flight control software," he says.


Southwest, UPS crashes

Weber and others note differences in how the NTSB handled the 22 July crash of Southwest flight 345 from Nashville, which landed nose-first at LaGuardia airport, causing the landing gear to collapse and the plane to skid 663m (2,175ft) down the runway.

After that accident, which resulted in relatively minor injuries to five crew members and three passengers, the NTSB issued three media releases but held no press conferences.

The NTSB has already held two press conferences following the UPS A300 crash in Birmingham on 14 August, including one in Washington announcing the launch of the investigation team and one in Birmingham, both on the same day as the crash.

Investigators have not yet released technical information about that crash, which killed the two pilots, because the black boxes had not been recovered as of late 14 August. But the board member Robert Sumwalt described the crash scene and weather conditions.

Weber says the seriousness of crashes partly determine how the NTSB responds.

"The Asiana crash resulted in fatalities. That made it very serious," says Weber. "The Southwest incident didn't have any fatalities."

The "go team"

The NTSB tells Flightglobal it holds daily press conferences only when it dispatches an investigation "go team", which includes one board member, to an accident site, as it did after the Asiana and UPS crashes.

The NTSB initially was not sure if it would categorise the Southwest crash as an accident or an incident, which wouldn't necessitate a "go team", it adds. The crash was later categorised an accident, but because no team was dispatched, the agency released information through press releases from Washington.

But the NTSB says the releases included the same type of information that Hersman released about the Asiana crash, including details about the 737's approach, including flap settings and airspeed at various altitudes.

The 737 touched the airport nose first at a 3° downward pitch, causing the nose gear to collapse, the board said. It added that the captain took control when the aircraft was less than 400ft off the ground.

"The same information came out, just in different format," the NTSB says.

Weber notes that both crashes occurred just weeks before President Obama nominated Hersman to her third two-year term as chair, which could have led her to seek a more public role. It is also possible the NTSB was more public because Asiana is a foreign carrier from South Korea, a country with a chequered aviation safety record, he says.

The NTSB flatly denies those theories, noting that board member Sumwalt will be holding daily press briefings about the UPS crash from Alabama.

ALPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Media frenzy

John Goglia, an NTSB board member 1995 to 2004, thinks the media's extensive coverage of the Asiana crash (including pictures of the aircraft's charred hulk) and misinformation about the event may be why the NTSB was more visible in San Francisco.

"When there's a media frenzy [like with] the Asiana crash, sometimes you have to put out accurate information [or] the thing gets wagged out of control," Goglia tells Flightglobal. "Speculation was going wild. ... Sometimes you have to feed the beast."

Though he agrees the NTSB released an unusually amount of information about the Asiana crash, he says that is not unprecedented.

Goglia released similar flight data - though not as much - following the 8 January 2003 crash near Charlotte of a Beech 1900 operated by Air Midwest, he says.

Speculation "was providing me grief, so I ended up releasing a bunch of material right off the flight data recorder," he says.

Speculation was also high following the Asiana crash, with observers questioning the skills of the Korean pilots and the safety of South Korea-based airlines.

"I don't blame [Hersman]," Goglia says. "You can't tell how much pressure she was getting and how much disinformation was being passed around."