Unprecedented -- and irrefutably necessary...
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.