Thursday, August 20, 2009

Unprecedented -- and irrefutably necessary...

It happened Monday, after a weekend of dueling press releases and press conferences -- and in 30 years of covering aviation, it struck me as absolutely unprecedented. And it was, according to contacts in and out of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Monday, following equally unprecedented public rejection of preliminary information from the NTSB investigation of the Hudson River mid-air, the NTSB ejected the National Air Traffic Controllers Association from its role as a "party" to the investigation. Sadly, by the time the dust settled and the ejection was past, the NTSB corrected some badly portrayed information in its press release from Friday, Aug. 14.

It happened this way: the NTSB release in effect said a controller who had handed off the Piper Saratoga should have seen and warned that pilot of dangerous potential traffic conflicts ahead of him; NATCA strongly disagreed with the portrayal, issued its own release and called a press conference to make its case -- all outside of the NTSB rules and the agreed-upon process. NTSB staff next reminded NATCA of its obligation and its responsibilities but on Monday, NATCA officials repeated the process with another press release and press briefing in effect ratcheting up the dispute.

So the NTSB pulled the plug on NATCA's participation. And then the board clarified its report to note that the controller in question could not have seen the threatening traffic. But, again sadly, the damage was done for this inquiry.

My observation of "sadly" comes because that sort of correction is not unprecedented in an accident investigation of this type and now NATCA's knowledge and voice will be missing from the remainder of the inquiry. As one contact, a former special assisant to a board member told me Monday, every one who agrees to serve as a party to an investigation -- from the airframe and engine representatives to the maintenance and ATC reps -- is briefed on their role, has the rules explained, and signs an agreement to let the NTSB be the source of all public info released during the investigative process.

When disputes happen -- and they happen regularly within investigations, my contact confirmed -- the drill is to handle them within the context of the team and the NTSB process.

During a period of my career when covering the Safety Board was a regular part of my beat, the NTSB was always forthcoming with what it could safely say it knew and unwilling under any circumstances to engage in conjecture or hypotheticals; the participants, the "parties" worked as groups, weighed evidence and information, and generally came to a consensus that moved forward toward a final report and probable cause. Sometimes, rarely, information was poorly worded, or misinterpreted between the field and a press officers who handled the media; sometimes the information changed as new evidence came to light. And the ever-present "eye-witness accounts" so attractive to the media often ebbed and flowed with theories and explanations -- most of which eventually proved incorrect and the board in time disposed.

Overall, the process has generally worked well and served the public interest in improving safety. That's how the process is designed to work; that's how it's worked, effectively, for the more than four decades since the board's creation.

Imagine, for a moment, how different these decades of excellent -- not perfect, but damned good -- investigative work would be received if every party headed out on its own and issued its own interpretation of evidence and information...imagine how difficult it would be to establish even a hint of credibility about the results, if every party could offer its own self-oriented spin on the information.

NATCA is coming off a period in which its membership struggled under an FAA management that refused to engage in meaningful exchanges about important issues; the controllers union did great service to its membership and the public in taking on some of the foibles of the past FAA management. Now it has new management and new progress at the FAA.

But it appears that NATCA's staff fell into old habits and confused the NTSB for the FAA in taking public a solvable dispute. It's paid the price in the NTSB's decision to protect and secure the integrity of its investigative process.

And that's how it should be. Hopefully, when the next sad occassion requires the participation of NATCA as a party to an investigation, it won't make the same error of judgement and it will make clear to the safety board that it now understand the process and its responsibilities.

-- Dave


Blogger Jack Hodgson said...

Very interesting Dave. Thanks.

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Rick B. in Illinois said...

I agree with you - partially.
But the NTSB could have used some smarts and made certain they were dead on before "fingering" the controller. Particularly in this case, which has gotten so much press.
The NTSB needs to shoulder part of the blame on this - they demonstrated poor judgment and damaged their own creditability.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Dave Higdon said...

Rick B.

Back atya...agree with you, partially; the language of the factual, as it was related to me and as I read it, wasn't wholly clear; the press release didn't really help here, either...and on a "slow" news day as Friday's often are for national outlets, it got lots of play.

Flip side, the NTSB will make honest mistakes and correct them; but the way to do this was within the process, as the NTSB counseled the NATCA folks after the first mistake, compounding the process my starting an external dispute about the process itself; so the board acted accordingly after the second round of publicity the controller's union fostered.

Some of my friends are controllers...they seem to see both the points but understand the outcome.

If there's a silver lining, it's my belief that it will be a long, long time before another party to an NTSB investigation repeats what happened last weekend.

-- Dave

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Rick B. in Illinois said...

Hi Dave,

I appreciate your reply and just listened to part of show #150…

Without a doubt, NATCA forced the NTSB’s hand with the second news conference. The NTSB had no practical choice but to expel the union from the investigation at that point.
Why NATCA took that second action is mystifying, they made their point the first time.

Keep up the good work. I always look forward to each podcast and happy 3rd anniversary.

A loyal listener

10:08 PM  
Blogger Dave Higdon said...

Thanks, Rick...appreciate our fans very highly; good trading, what this industry needs is a good five-cent flight instructor...
Thanks for listening and contributing!
-- Dave

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trouble is the damage had already been done!

Here in New Zealand the collision was big news and bore a frightening similarity to a collision between a traffic spotting Cherokee and a Police Twin Squirrel back in the early '90s. The collision over the Hudson was of particular interest to "Kiwis" as the pilot of the helicopter was also a New Zealander.

From here (and removed from some of the other corrections to the press releases) it appeared that the NTSB placed much of the preliminary blame on the air traffic controller as he was on the phone to his girlfriend. That blame has stuck as there has been no further reporting on the incident, and certainly no correction to the NTSB's earlier error. It has only been through "investigative surfing" following the story that I have "uncovered" the rest of the issues - that the controller in question never had the opportunity to pass traffic information as the helicopter only appeared on his radar AFTER the PA32 had been given shout off his frequency. That he was stood down is, in fact, a separate story but has always been reported in the same articles as the collision...thereby unfairly tarring the controller with blame.

To the vast majority of the general public (outside of the US, and probably also within the US with little interest in aviation) it seems that the main cause of the accident was that an air traffic controller was on the phone to his girlfriend/partner.

I say good on NATCA for attempting to correct the error. Obviously I'm not privy to the process other than what was contained in your podcast, and I'm still none the wiser as to what process was followed in the initial press release. I'm only assuming that either NATCA wasn't consulted prior to the release or attempted unsuccessfully to correct it prior to the release. I don't condone going outside the set protocols, unless they were getting no "traction" following the protocols.

Senior Air Traffic Controller
NZALPA Member (Association representing BOTH pilots and air traffic controllers in NZ)
IFATCA (International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations) affiliate

2:40 AM  
Anonymous NZSlackie said...

Don't know why my last post came us as "Anonomous"??

2:43 AM  
Blogger Dave Higdon said...

Good points, NZSlackie...too often, the correction of facts gets little to no media support -- not sexy, not as "hot" or an editor doesn't want to make the paper look like it was culpable in a mistake...

As for the process of correcting within the process, believe the play given the erroneous story hit the investigative team between the eyes and they went back and looked at how the wording of the release got things wrong.

In the end, the important thing will be the final cause and its probable cause finding...that will be a while coming -- and even then, won't absolve the problem the controller and the supervisor found themselves in by violating work-space policies and having the bad luck of doing so as an accident happened, bringing down on them attention that might otherwise have never occurred.



10:16 AM  

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