Aviation accidents (depending on their impact) are often investigated by several government agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
National Transportation Safety Board
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent organization that investigates aviation, highway, marine, railroads, and pipeline accidents that take place in the United States. Specifically, every civil aviation accident that occurs in the U.S. must be closely examined by the NTSB.
The NTSB was created in 1967 and has investigated well over 120,000 aviation accidents in the past forty years. Part of the NTSB’s job is to issue safety recommendations following the investigation of an accident to help prevent future catastrophes from occurring. In most NTSB investigations a team of specialists is assigned to closely examine a series of factors that may contribute to the cause of a crash.
During NTSB investigations, external organizations or corporations are usually named as parties to the effort that can contribute their expertise. Agencies such as the FAA work closely with the NTSB in an effort to conduct a thorough and conclusive examination into aviation accidents.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the U.S. government’s independent organization for the investigations of accidents involving aviation, highway, marine, pipelines, and railroads in the United States. The NTSB is responsible for investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States.
Since its creation in 1967, the NTSB has investigated over 120,000 aviation accidents. The NTSB also lists its most wanted transportation safety improvements for aviation issues. These improvements include actions suggested for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to reduce dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions, eliminate flammable fuel/air vapors in fuel tanks on transport aircraft, stop runway collisions or incursions of aircraft, improve audio and data recorders, require video recorders, and require restraint systems for children under age two. These are all issues that the NTSB feels are not being addressed quickly enough by the FAA.
The National Transportation Safety Board exists to make air travel safer for all people. The NTSB has issued more than 12,000 recommendations to all transportation modes, but only 82 percent of these urgings have been adopted. Companies that refuse to follow the expert analysis of the NTSB jeopardize the safety of aviators, passengers, and innocent civilians on the ground.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is largely responsible for the investigation by sending out a team of respondents to the scene of the accident. Once reaching the scene, the team works at solving the cause of the accident and other complex issues associated with it. Although they play a big part in the investigation, this board focuses on informing individuals about their findings to improve airline safety overall.
The NTSB has established regulation guides and procedures for NTSB staff to follow when launching an investigation. Although these documents are not regulatory in nature, they are recommended to be addressed during the investigation process.
At the beginning of the investigation process, the NTSB forms a “Go Team” that evaluates the accident scene as quickly as possible and determines the different types of technical expertise required to solve the complex problems of that particular case. Each Go Team has investigators responsible for closely examining the operations, structures, power plants, systems, air traffic control, weather, human performance, and survival factors related to the aviation accident.
In addition to the Go Team, the NTSB also designates other organizations or corporations as parties to the investigations. Cases that involve suspected criminal activity may require law enforcement agencies to become involved. Sometimes the investigation process takes months, with public hearings and stages of tests and analysis taking place before the final report is presented. The final report includes to NTSB’s conclusions, probable causes, and safety recommendations to avoid similar accidents from occurring in the future.
NTSB Field Office Investigations.
The NTSB has field or regional offices set up to handle aviation accidents in specific parts of the United States. These field offices accept reports of accidents or incidents that take place in states of their jurisdiction and conduct investigations accordingly.
There are ten regional or field offices spread across the country. Moving from east to west, the Northeast field office is responsible for the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The Mid-Atlantic field office investigates aviation accidents in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Southeast field office researches cases in Florida, Mississippi, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Finally, the Southern field office looks into aviation accidents that occur in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
The North Central NTSB field office is responsible for the states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Moving southward, the South Central field office investigates accidents in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The NTSB’s Central Mountain field office examines Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming accidents; the Northwest field office is responsible for Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. The states of Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Pacific Islands in the U.S. trust territories fall under the jurisdiction of the NTSB’s Southwest field office. Finally, the Alaska field office investigates Alaskan aviation accidents.
NTSB Headquarters Investigations.
Although most of the NTSB’s investigations are conducted by regional and field offices, NTSB headquarters in Washington, DC is responsible for some cases. Typically NTSB headquarters are only responsible for major accidents, and a Go Team is assembled to address these cases.
The Go Team is comprised of a group of technical specialists who can address the operations, structures, powerplants, systems, air traffic control, survival factors, human performance, and weather issues arising out of any particular aviation accident. In addition to the Go Team, other organizations or corporations are designated as parties to the investigation based on their technical expertise.
After a full investigation has been conducted, NTSB headquarters releases a final report. This document contains conclusion, probable cause, and safety recommendations related to the aviation accident. It is hoped that the information provided in the final report can help provide closure to victims of the accident and prevent the tragedy of future similar accidents from occurring again.
NTSB Power and Authority.
The primary purpose of the NTSB is to promote safety in transportation. Aviation is just one of the methods of transportation that falls under the jurisdiction of the NTSB. All accidents involving civil aircraft and certain public aircraft must be investigated by the NTSB.
The NTSB has the power to make transportation safety recommendations to Federal, State, and local agencies, as well as private organizations. The NTSB also has the authority to launch investigations into many transportation accidents, including all civil aircraft incidents.
The NTSB derives its authority from Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 11 and was established in 1967. In addition to its investigative responsibilities, the NTSB also serves as an appeals court for any mechanic or airman when certificate action is taken by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Limitations of NTSB.
Witnesses have the right to be represented by counsel whenever the NTSB decides to interrogate any witness as part of an investigation. This right includes the right for the witness to be accompanied by an attorney during all aspects of any interrogation. The presence of an attorney can dramatically influence the interrogation process and prevent witnesses from being overpowered by the constraints of the NTSB.
The NTSB is given exclusive custody of the wreckage, cargo, and records of accident aircraft. However, this access has been challenged by private parties with success in court. Although the NTSB is powerful and has an important task to perform in the timely completion of an investigation, it is important that the organization be closely monitored to ensure they do not overstep their authority.
An experienced aviation attorney can help you fight for justice if you believe the NTSB has abused its power in an investigation. Do not hesitate to discuss your case with an understanding lawyer today and ensure that you are protected throughout the investigation process.
The structure of the NTSB reflects its mission to promote the safety of various transportation mediums. The Board itself consists of five members, including a Chairman, a Vice Chairman, and three other members. Each member is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve 5-year terms. Members serve 2-year terms as Chairman and Vice Chairman.
Reporting to the Board are the Office of General Counsel, the Office of Management, the Equal Employment Opportunity Director, and the Office of Chief Financial Officer. Within the Office of Management are: the Office of Research and Engineering; Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety; Office of Highway Safety; Office of Marine Safety; Office of Aviation Safety; Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications; Office of Administration; and Office of the Academy.
The Office of Aviation Safety consists of Regional Offices in Anchorage, Atlanta, West Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Gardena, Miami, Parsippany, Seattle, and Ashburn. The Office of Aviation Safety also includes the Major Investigations Division, Regional Operations and General Aviation Division, Operational Factors Division, Aviation Engineering Division, Human Performance Division, Survival Factors Division, and Writing and Editing Division.
The NTSB releases reports at an irregular frequency. Different NTSB publications include general interest reports, aviation reports, highway reports, marine reports, pipeline reports, hazardous materials reports, and railroad reports.
NTSB aviation reports may take months to prepare. The NTSB is responsible for conducting a full investigation in to the probable causes of each civil aviation accident that occurs in the United States, and final reports often include contributions from other parties lending their expertise.
In 2004, the NTSB released six reports on aviation accidents that took place between the years 2000 and 2003. Additionally, the NTSB also produces studies on risk factors and safety procedures associated with aviation accidents, as well as annual reports to Congress.
NTSB Reports in Court.
NTSB reports cannot be used as evidence in court. More accurately, facts from the report may be used, but opinions may not. There are two reasons for this policy. First, the integrity of the NTSB’s investigation may be compromised if final reports were used as evidence. Second, the autonomy of the jury must be maintained during civil proceedings.
If NTSB reports were used as evidence, some witnesses may be less forthcoming with information during the investigative process and could compromise the quality of the report by giving a more desired answer instead of an accurate answer to questions being asked of them. Additionally, the NTSB and the people involved with the report could be summoned to court to testify, which would prevent them from performing their normal investigative duties.
Aviation law is a complicated specialization that requires extensive knowledge to practice. If you or someone you care about has been involved in an aviation accident, it is essential to contact an experienced aviation attorney who can help you navigate the specifics of the law and obtain justice.
Federal Aviation Administration
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for ensuring that the manufacture, operation, and maintenance of all aircraft meet minimum safety and other standards and all current regulations. This team investigates the aircraft to see if there were any part defects or maintenance violations that may have contributed to the aviation accident.
A Brief History of the FAA
The modern age of powered flight began in 1903, when Orville Wright made the first sustained, powered flight on December 17 in a plane he and his brother Wilbur built. This twelve-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane in 1905, and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines. As a result, the early twentieth century witnessed myriad aviation developments as new planes and technologies entered service. During World War I, the airplane also proved its effectiveness as a military tool and, with the advent of early airmail service, showed great promise for commercial applications.
Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business. Flying conditions proved difficult since the only navigation devices available to most pilots were magnetic compasses. Pilots flew 200 to 500 feet above ground so they could navigate by roads and railways. Low visibility and night landings were made using bonfires on the field as lighting. Fatal accidents were routine.
The Air Mail Act of 1925 facilitated the creation of a profitable commercial airline industry, and airline companies such as Pan American Airways, Western Air Express, and Ford Air Transport Service began scheduled commercial passenger service. By the mid-1930s, the four major domestic airlines that dominated commercial travel for most of the twentieth century began operations: United, American, Eastern, and Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA).
As air travel increased, some airport operators, hoping to improve safety, began providing an early form of air traffic control (ATC) based on visual signals. Early controllers stood on the field and waved flags to communicate with pilots. Archie League, the system’s first flagmen, began work in the late 1920s at the airfield in St. Louis, Missouri.
Creation of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO)
In April 2000, President Clinton signed into law the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, which contained a provision mandating the appointment of a chief operating officer. In a December executive order, the president directed FAA to create a performance-based organization that focused solely on efficient operation of the air traffic control system.
In June 2003, FAA selected its first ATO Chief Operating Officer (COO), Russell Chew. With the COO in place, FAA went forward with a major reorganization of its air traffic and research and acquisition organizations. On November 18, 2003, the Secretary of Transportation announced initial details of the new ATO business structure. The ATO consolidated FAA’s air traffic services, research and acquisitions, and Free Flight Program activities into a smaller, more efficient organization with a strict focus on providing the best service for the best value to the aviation industry and the traveling public.
The ATO officially began operations on February 8, 2004. It consisted of five major service units: En Route & Oceanic; Terminal; Flight Services; System Operations; and, Technical Operations. Also included within the organization’s top level are five staff-level business groups: Safety; Communications; Operations Planning; Finance; and Acquisition and Business Services. In 2008, the ATO consolidated the service units and staff offices into four business units, each led by a senior vice president.
In line with other agency efforts to improve efficiency, in December 2005, the COO restructured ATO administrative and support functions in the field. In June 2006, he instituted a new ATO Service Center structure. Three service centers replaced the nine service area offices within En Route, Terminal, and Technical Operations. Each of the service centers was made up of five functional groups: administrative services, business services, safety assurance, system support, and planning and requirements. A sixth group, engineering services, was a shared resource and remained in place in the existing locations.
Safety First, Last, and Always
Between 2001 and 2007, aviation witnessed one of its safest periods for scheduled air carriers. Not counting the terrorist activities of September 11, 2001, there were only three fatal accidents in 2001; none in 2002; two in 2003; one in 2004; three in 2005; two in 2006; and none in 2007. Fatal accidents became rare events with only .01 accidents per 100,000 flight hours or .018 accidents per 100,000 departures.
Federal Assistance for Families of Airplane Crash Victims
The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 requires the federal government to provide support to families of victims in major airplane crashes or accidents, places certain duties on the airline, and limits attorney solicitation of airplane crash victims.
Duties of the National Transportation Safety Board
Under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) must designate an independent nonprofit organization to coordinate services for the disaster survivors and victims’ families. These services include:
- mental health and counseling services
- meeting with families of victims
- providing a place for families to grieve without disruption by the press or attorneys
- victim identification and forensic services
- daily briefings to families
- arranging a memorial service
- communicating with foreign governments, and
- translation services.
Responsibilities of the Airline
The Act also places duties on the airline involved in the crash. Among other things, the airline must:
- establish a toll-free telephone line for families of victims
- list all passengers on the flight, and inform families of those passengers before the list is made public
- inform families of the death of family members, and
- assist the families in traveling to the location of the accident and provide room and board for family members.
Federal Tort Claims Act.
The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is responsible for controlling all air traffic in the U.S. When the carelessness of an FAA employee causes an airplane accident, plaintiffs must sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA sets forth special rules and procedures that must be followed when suing an employee of the federal government.