GAO: NTSB Must Get Academy in the Black

 - December 18, 2006, 10:54 AM

In response to a congressional inquiry, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has determined that the NTSB Training Center near Washington Dulles International Airport should either be made more cost-effective or vacated.

The GAO said the training center is not cost-effective because its revenues do not cover its costs or the costs of training staff members elsewhere. The building and land are leased from George Washington University.

The training center contains five classrooms (including an auditorium); a large area that houses the reconstructed fuselage of TWA Flight 800, the 747 that crashed off Long Island in 1996; aircraft and other wreckage; eating and lounge areas; and office space for the six employees who constitute the NTSB’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Aviation Office.

In Fiscal Year 2005, costs exceeded revenues by $3.9 million, the GAO said. Furthermore, the training center does little to control the cost of external training, as the majority of NTSB staff training occurs externally. “Potential strategies to increase revenues or decrease costs could increase the cost-effectiveness of the training center,” the organization said. However, it concluded that vacating the space altogether might be the most effective strategy for the Safety Board.

The training center’s revenues are affected by several factors, including low use, the availability of similar courses elsewhere and the fact that the course costs are already at or above market prices. “We estimate that, overall, less than 10 percent of the available classroom capacity was used during Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006,” the GAO said.

GAO was also asked to examine other areas of NTSB operations. Legislators requested that the organization assess the NTSB’s management practices and accident investigation activities before passing a budget reauthorization. With a staff of 386 and a FY2006 budget of $76.7 million, the NTSB is considered a relatively small agency.

Early last month, Congress passed H.R.5076, the “National Transportation Safety Board Reauthorization Act of 2006,” which authorizes $81.6 million for FY2007 and $92.6 million for FY2008. It directs the NTSB to develop and implement a plan to achieve the self-sufficient operation of the training facility and directs the GAO to evaluate and audit NTSB programs and expenditures at least annually.

The NTSB was established in 1966 as an independent government agency within the newly formed Department of Transportation. In 1974, Congress made the NTSB completely separate from the DOT. The NTSB’s principal responsibility is to promote transportation safety by investigating transportation accidents, determining the probable cause and issuing recommendations to address safety issues identified during accident investigations.

The NTSB has varying degrees of flexibility in its statutory mandate, as it pertains to initiating an investigation. By statute, the Safety Board has limited discretion in deciding which aviation accidents to investigate and the greatest amount of discretion in deciding whether to investigate highway accidents.

To improve overall agency operations, the GAO recommended that the NTSB fully implement leading management practices in several areas, develop risk-based criteria for determining which accidents to investigate in all modes, increase its use of safety studies and develop a business plan to increase the use of its training center or vacate it. The GAO said the NTSB agreed with these recommendations.