Board members' letter reveals strife at NTSB

 - July 25, 2007, 9:27 AM

NTSB members are strongly dissatisfied with the way in which Board chairman Ellen Engleman Conners is attempting to curb their activities. Three Board members–Carol Carmody, Richard Healing and Deborah Hersman–sent a letter to the chairman late this summer expressing their concerns. The Board did not make the letter public, but AIN obtained a copy of it. The letter expresses frustration with various changes the chairman has introduced since her appointment in March last year. The issues range from bureaucratic policies regarding acquisition of office supplies, at one extreme, to matters of direct interest to pilots and aircraft operators that can be summarized as concern for the Board’s role as a respected safety watchdog.

The five Board members, including the chairman, are appointed by the White House as independent individuals with equal standing, each member having one vote. Outside the five-member board, the chairman is charged with administering the overall organization of accident investigators and support staff.

Of possibly gravest importance to the aviation community are the members’ concerns about the “Safety With A Team” (SWAT) program. Over the years, the NTSB (which has no regulatory powers) has made many safety recommendations that the FAA has adopted and others that, within its rights, the FAA has rejected. But according to an informed observer, the SWAT program is intended to encourage NTSB staff to cooperate with various regulatory bodies to “work things out,” and cut the number of rejected NTSB proposals.

While this SWAT program could help move the NTSB’s safety batting average to 100 percent, since unpalatable recommendations could then be molded into more acceptable forms, some see it as weakening an organization that was established expressly to be an independent safety burr under the saddle of all the transportation agencies.

Traditionally, each Board member has also hired his or her own support staff–a process that, according to “recent experience” cited in the letter, has become mired in politically inspired rejection of qualified job applicants.

In addition to being understaffed, the Board members complain that Engleman Conners has compromised their ability to function as expected by restricting their travel (presumably beyond what they regard as the intent of restrictions inspired by excesses by other members in the past) and by trying to limit their conversations with NTSB staff and the media. The three Board members also expressed concern that Engleman Conners had not consulted other Board members before giving testimony in Congress, and they said they expect such testimony to “be circulated in time for each Board member to offer comment and approval” before it is submitted.

AIN contacted the Board for comment by Engleman Conners, and its director of public affairs issued the following statement: “Chairman Engleman Conners is focused on the work of the agency. Since she arrived at the Board 18 months ago, she has concentrated on maximizing the NTSB’s performance and results by cleaning up the record (open recommendations have decreased from more than 1,000 to just over 800, the lowest number in 30 years) and working hard to get the resources needed to fill dozens of vacant career investigator positions. Her door remains open to her colleagues on the Board and she looks forward to their assistance in achieving those goals. The chairman hopes that Board members will continue to focus on the important mission of the Board rather than on bureaucratic distractions.” (Additional reporting by John Sheridan.)