Safety Agency's Chief Is Wary of Lobbying
The chairman of the nation's independent transportation safety agency said yesterday that she is concerned about the growing impact of outside lobbying and lawsuits on the organization's ability to investigate accidents fairly and quickly.
Citing a contentious battle between American Airlines and Airbus SAS over the cause of the nation's most deadly airplane accident, the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor, N.Y., Ellen Engleman Conners said that repeated meetings of both parties with the National Transportation Safety board staff delayed the agency's final report.
"The potential for contamination to the investigation exists," Conners said, although she said that no investigation thus far has been swayed by the lobbying. "What we're concerned about is information presented that is not pertinent to the investigation."
The NTSB last year blamed the crash on the American Airlines pilot and cited the aircraft design as a contributing factor to the accident. The crash killed 260 people on the plane and five on the ground.
Conners, speaking yesterday at a breakfast meeting with reporters, said the NTSB investigators and board members were lobbied on Flight 587 more often than on any other investigation since the controversial 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the Long Island coast, which killed 230. "It's not an appropriate thing to happen at the NTSB," she said.
At times, Conners said, it can be difficult to distinguish between efforts to provide information to the safety board and efforts to influence its conclusions. Companies and organizations connected to a crash are often tapped to serve as "parties" to an accident investigation who provide information to investigators. In big crashes, the party blamed for the crash will likely be forced to pay millions in claims to victims' families.
With the stakes high, companies increasingly not only want to help investigators, but they also want to persuade them that they are not at fault.
"The party process can lend itself to that abuse," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB, who is now at a public relations and lobbying firm in Washington. "A lot of lobbying is driven by the litigation. The longer the investigation goes on, the more entwined it becomes with litigation."
Before the board made its decision on the American Airlines crash, representatives from American scheduled numerous meetings with reporters, NTSB board members and investigators to try to raise questions about Airbus, to a point at which some NTSB officials asked the airline to stop calling unless they had new information to offer, said one source close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. American has raised questions about the access of an Airbus official who is a former NTSB board member and about Airbus's role as an adviser to the French accident investigation agency.
"We firmly believe our input was critical to the investigation," said American spokesman Bruce Hicks. "More information is always better than less information in any investigation."
Airbus also denied that it did nything "outside of the proper professional process for exchanging information with the authorities during the investigation," said company spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn. "In fact, we think our relationship with NTSB was excellent."
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CD, Thanks for a very interesting article. I share the concern that these companies do in fact have far too much to say in the investigation of plane crashes. No question about it.
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