Industry Balks At Some Proposed NTSB Changes

Proposed changes in NTSB accident investigation procedures concern industry stakeholders

A proposed update to the regulations that guide U.S.-led accident investigations has raised concerns from a variety of industry stakeholders.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) proposed changes, prompted by a 2011 White House order that all U.S. agencies review their rules and update them if necessary, are hardly sweeping. NTSB describes them as a reorganization of Part 831, the rules that set accident and incident investigation procedures. Many of the proposed changes “are merely technical in nature,” NTSB says, but notes that a few—including, judging by industry’s reactions, some that affect aviation—are “substantive.”

The board’s proposal would add mode-specific subparts to address mode-specific details. The existing regulations mix such details in with the general regulations.

The board also proposed to swap the terms “accident” and “incident” with the term “event” to describe generically what it investigates. Aviation’s heavy influence on NTSB’s work led to “accident” and “incident” being used throughout the existing regulations, regardless of the mode—“event” is not mentioned in the current Part 831. While the proposed new Subpart B text for aviation clarifies that the board’s investigative authority extends only to accidents and incidents, some are concerned that the generic “event” term used in the rule’s main section—and which NTSB does not define—could lead to mission creep.

“Because what constitutes an ‘event’ that may merit an NTSB investigation is not defined, the result could be confusion, uncertainty, and delay while affected parties wait to learn whether the NTSB will launch an investigation,” Boeing explains. While few debate the value of an NTSB probe, the investigations require following very specific procedures including seizure of key equipment involved—from flight data recorders to entire aircraft—making them disruptive to operators and others. “The proposed rule could therefore have unintended negative consequences in an industry that has achieved a remarkable level of safety and responsiveness through proven safety and other processes established by airlines and manufacturers,” Boeing adds.

Boeing and others also take issue with NTSB’s plan to elevate the investigator-in-charge’s (IIC) reach. The board proposes to require all parties to notify the IIC—NTSB’s designated lead on a major investigation—before conducting internal inquiries or reviews, as a result of an event NTSB is investigating.

Boeing says that existing language allowing the board to demand relevant evidence that it feels it does not have, and to remove uncooperative parties from probes, gives the board enough power. Requiring that IICs are apprised of all internal probes in advance “could have a negative impact on safety by impairing and chilling internal post-incident analysis and evaluations,” Boeing argues, adding that it already provides any relevant information related to an incident’s potential cause found in such probes to the IIC.

Boeing also expresses concern at proposed language that would penalize parties for not disclosing information “pertaining to the accident, or in any manner relevant to the investigation.” The requirement is both “vague” and “exceedingly broad,” Boeing argues.

“Parties should not be required to guess at what [NTSB] may think is relevant information or face the risk of penalty if they guess wrong,” Boeing says. 

GE balked at a proposal that would require parties to inform IICs “in a timely manner” when they disseminate investigation-related information internally, even to technical experts.

“It is often necessary to share information with key personnel who possess technical expertise and/or product knowledge that is beneficial to the investigation but who are not officers and have no decision-making authority,” GE notes, suggesting that looping in IICs for each exchange—or facing punishment if not—is overly burdensome.

Several commenters urged NTSB to incorporate a change the board said it was considering: distributing draft copies of final reports to the investigation’s parties. “The board should provide the parties with a copy of the NTSB notation draft report, as is done with ICAO Annex-13-designated foreign representatives, at least to include analytical conclusions (not necessarily probable causes or safety recommendations),” Airlines For America (A4A) says. This would allow discussion and clarification of “erroneous or incomplete factual conclusions” before the public hearings that conclude major investigations.

NTSB received 43 sets of public comments on the proposed changes. The board has not set a time frame for publishing a final rule, but it says it will review its regulations every two years going forward. 

A version of this article appears in the December 1/8 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

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