NTSB throws union and airline out from their accident investigation for good reasons

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It may seem harsh for the NTSB to expel the union representing the pilots and the airline as parties to an investigation. The rules governing all participants in these proceeding were cited as the basis and the underlying reasons make good sense.

An NTSB investigation is a peculiar process. It requires great discipline by the Members, staff and parties. The press and the public have an insatiable thirst for an immediate answer; the sooner the better is their mantra. The history of past proceedings demonstrates that it is rare for the eventual probable cause finding to be closely related to early suspected rationales. All too often, heavy publicity places undue pressure on the NTSB to chase after false target. For example, press reports that TWA 800 was taken down by a missile required the NTSB to spend valuable time and many dollars to debunk that theory.

Every person, who is given access to the investigation process, is required to sign a “Certification of Party Representative” form. Execution of this document is a predicate for literally entering the scene and more importantly receiving all of the information gathered during the process. That document not only cites 49 CFR §831.13, but also compels the participant to read and comply with that restriction. The specific language is as follows:

“no information concerning the accident or incident may be released to any person not a party representative to the investigation (including non-party representative employees of the party organization) before initial release by the Safety Board without prior consultation and approval of the IIC.”

The rule has a strong public policy basis; if someone who has the unusual knowledge of a party and if that person releases information gained through the party status, the press is sure to treat it as the truth.

It is quite possible that the use of such preliminary information may cause the public to overreact before final analysis is reached. Panic among shippers/ passengers, premature precipitation of legislative and/or regulatory action and other related/unrelated actions may occur.

Safety investigators must keep their eyes open, taking in all of the possibilities. The language of probable causes frequently involve words like unknown, unexpected, unanticipated and a variety of terms beyond the range of initially identified causes. The rule of §831.13 may appear to be harsh, but it makes great sense.

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