The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is a federal agency that Congress established in 1967 and charged it with the responsibility of improving safety in the transport industry. In essence, NTSB deals with the safety issues that happen in the transportation industry in aspects such as aviation, rail, road, pipeline, and marine. In the aviation industry, NTSB promotes safety by investigating accidents with a view of giving recommendations on how to avoid their occurrence. Whenever there are accidents and incidents in the aviation industry, the United States government invites NTSB to undertake a thorough investigation and offer safety recommendations to the responsible bodies and departments.
According to Sumwalt and Dalton (2014), NTSB has investigated approximately 140,000 accidents in the aviation industry and has prepared comprehensive reports with more than 5000 safety recommendations. The numerous investigations and recommendations show that NTSB is an agency that is competent in undertaking investigations and providing recommendations to appropriate bodies and departments in the aviation industry. In this view, the research paper examines the legal background, identifies the legislative mandate, and describes the investigative process of NTSB in the aviation industry.
The United States government has been keen on improving safety in the transport industry. The emergence of aircrafts in the early 20 century prompted the United States government to enact legislations aimed at regulating aircrafts and improving the safety of people. The occurrence of many accidents during the barnstorming era pointed out safety issues of the aircrafts. In response to the experience of accidents, Congress enacted legislations to regulate the burgeoning aviation industry. In 1926, Congress passed the Air Commerce Act 1926.The Act bestowed powers to the United States Department of Commerce to regulate the aviation industry and promote safety. The Department of Commerce improved the safety of the aviation industry by formulating safety rules, certifying pilots, and qualifying aircrafts. Besides, the Department of Commerce improved communication by introducing aeronautical radios, which improved navigation in the aviation industry.
Moreover, the Act gave powers to the federal government to establish a bureau that determines and improves safety standards in the aviation industry. In 1940, the government established the Civil Aeronautics Board’s Bureau of Aviation Safety and gave it the mandate to ensure that there was safety in the aviation industry. The bureau came up with numerous legislations that defined and determined safety issues in the aviation industry.
The responsibilities of the bureau entailed safety certification of aircrafts, certification of pilots, enforcement of legislations, and the establishment of airways. Other responsibilities of the body were to manage air navigation and investigate causes of accidents in the aviation industry. Currently, NTSB has remained with the responsibility of investigating causes of accidents in the aviation industry and offers appropriate safety recommendations to avert similar occurrence.
The growth of the aviation industry necessitated the establishment of an independent agency that focuses on the causes of aircraft accidents and offers appropriate safety recommendations to relevant bodies and departments. Given that the Civil Aeronautics Board’s Bureau of Aviation Safety was under the Department of Commerce and Transportation, it was impossible for it to perform independent functions aimed at improving safety in the aviation industry.
In 1967, Congress made NTSB an independent agency by passing the Independent Transportation Safety Board Act 1974 (Sumwalt & Dalton, 2014). The independence empowered NTSB to undertake investigations of accidents in the aviation industry, report the findings, and provide appropriate safety recommendations without undue influence from other parties, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and airline companies, which have vested interests in the aviation industry.
NTSB comprises a five-member board that the President nominates, and the Senate approves the nominated to serve for five years. Among the five members, the President also designates a chairperson and a vice chairperson subject to the approval of the Senate for them to serve for two years. In the absence of the chairperson, the vice chairperson assumes the responsibility of the chairperson of steering the NTSB.
The primary responsibility of the board is to supervise investigative staff, ensure the performance of appropriate investigations, and generate a relevant report. Investigative staff undertakes investigations and writes comprehensive reports, which detail findings and highlight proposed safety recommendations. Sumwalt and Dalton (2014) argue that members of the board read the report and approve its findings and safety recommendations by voting. Given that NTSB is an independent agency, the approval of the report is only subject to the quality of investigations and the voting outcomes of the board members.
To perform its functions appropriately, NTSB has sufficient employees charged with different responsibilities. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (2015), the current employees in the agency are about 400 employees distributed in among headquarters in Washington and other regional offices in various states. The regional offices are in Atlanta (GA), Arlington (TX), Ashburn (VA), Miami (FL), Federal Way (WA), Chicago (IL), Denver (CO), Gardena (CA), and Anchorage (AK).
Most employees work at the headquarters because the agency has most of its operations centralized. According to Sumwalt and Dalton (2014), 250 employees work in the headquarters, 125 employees work in the aviation office, and the remaining 25 employees work in the regional offices performing administrative and investigative functions. The distribution indicates that most operations of the NTSB are in the aviation industry because about 30% of the employees work in the aviation office. Therefore, the distribution of employees is significant for it demonstrates the capacity of NTSB to perform its legislative mandate.
The primary legislative mandate of NTSB is to undertake investigations of accidents in the aviation industry to determine possible causes and provide appropriate safety recommendations. The enactment of the Independent Transportation Safety Board Act 1974 gave NTSB the mandate to undertake investigations of accidents in the aviation industry to establish possible causes and generate a report that outlines findings along with safety recommendations (Fielding, Lo, & Yang, 2011).
Whenever accidents happen in the aviation industry in the United States, NTSB immediately commences the investigation as mandated without seeking approval of the parties involved in the accident. Fundamentally, NTSB should ensure that it investigates all accidents that happen in the United States and generates reports for the respective bodies to study and adopt safety recommendations provided. In this case, the aviation industry in the United States relies on the investigations and safety recommendations of NTSB whenever aircraft accidents occur.
NTSB also has a mandate of ensuring that its investigations and safety recommendations are objective and accurate. To achieve this mandate, the Independent Transportation Safety Board Act 1974 made NTSB an independent agency. The independence of NTSB means that it can undertake objective and accurate investigations without the influence of interest parties such as airline companies and Federal Aviation Administration.
Moreover, the independence allows NTSB to give unbiased safety recommendations that are relevant to the safety issues that the air industry grapples with in its bid to improve safety. Fielding and Yang (2011) argue that the independence enables NTSB to carry out effective investigations and report impartial findings. Thus, NTSB achieves its mandate when the investigations, findings, and safety recommendations are objective and accurate, as per the aim of the envisioned independence.
Given that NTSB provides safety recommendations, its mandate is to advocate for their adoption to prevent the occurrence of similar accidents in the aviation industry. NTSB advocates for its safety recommendations by availing them to appropriate regulatory bodies in the aviation industry. Since NTSB has no regulatory mandate, it can only advocate for its safety recommendations in the aviation industry for regulatory bodies such as Federal Aviation Administration to adopt and apply in the promotion of safety (Fielding, Lo, & Yang, 2011).
Moreover, the mandate of NTSB does not extend to the establishment of the liability. In this view, the findings and safety recommendations are only appropriate for the promotion of safety through their prospective application. Sumwalt and Dalton (2014) assert that the United States Constitution prohibits the use of the findings in the reports as evidence in courts or basis of compensation in civil action. Hence, the mandate of NTSB is to advocate for its safety recommendations in the aviation industry.
In carrying out effective investigations, which yield objective and accurate findings and safety recommendations, NTSB employs a defined investigative process. As NTSB has no regulatory power, the nature of findings that they generate boosts its influence in the aviation industry. Accurate and objective findings have made NTSB to stand out in the aviation industry and become a reputable agency that deals with the investigation of accidents in the aviation industry. Accurate and objective findings stem from the nature of the investigative process that NTSB employs. Fielding, Lo, and Yang (2011) describe the investigative process as objective, accurate, transparent, and systematic. Therefore, the description of the investigative process highlights how NTSB undertakes its investigations and provides safety recommendations.
NRSB has Response Operations Center where response team monitors the occurrence of accidents in the aviation industry so that they can make an emergency response. Response Operations Center operates 24/7 while awaiting notifications from news media, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the government officials. When Response Operations Center receives notification of an accident, a senior investigator assembles ‘Go-Team’, which is a team that comprises forensic engineers. The senior investigator then leads the team to a scene of an accident and becomes the investigator-in-charge (Ferguson & Nelson, 2014). The allocation of senior investigators and investigators to ‘Go-Teams’ occur in a rotational basis so that everyone has an equal chance to serve in different teams. The rotation promotes sharing of ideas, knowledge, and skills, and thus, creates robust teams that have diverse expertise.
Parties to the Investigation
Since NTSB is an agency that deals with accidents in aviation, railroad, marine, and pipeline, it interacts with diverse agencies during its investigations. In the aviation industry, NTSB permits the participation of organizations that boost their investigations by providing required technical expertise. Organizations that have party status have the permission to participate actively in investigations that NTSB undertakes so long as they do not interfere with the investigative process. The law provides the Federal Aviation Administration with party status, and thus, it can participate in the investigation without submitting any form of request (Ferguson & Nelson, 2014).
The existence of party status implies that NTSB cooperates with the Federal Aviation Administration in carrying out investigations. However, other organizations that want to participate in the investigation should submit their requests to the investigator-in-charge for consideration. The assignment of party status is dependent on the prerogative of the investigator-in-charge, adherence to rules of NTSB, and directives of the investigator-in-charge. A notable piece of legislation that party participants declare is that their participation does have interests vested in insurers, claimants or any litigation process. Hence, all party participants should comply with the rules of NTSB and the directives of the investigator-in-charge lest they risk revocation of their party status.
Performance of Investigation
To commence an investigation, investigators arrive at a scene of an accident and undertake preliminary assessment individually. Next, the investigator-in-charge holds a meeting with investigators and party participants. The purpose of the meeting is to form investigative groups and assign parties. In instances where an accident involves regional parties, and it is minor, a single investigative group suffices to undertake a thorough investigation.
However, when an accident is major and involves many parties, investigator-in-charge forms several investigative groups. Tochen and Tobin (2013) describe the performance of investigation as a fact-finding process because it only entails collection of evidence without any form of analysis. Follow-up investigations such as a visit to manufacturer’s facility and interview of survivors, crew, and family members offer additional information to NTSB. After fact-finding process concludes, investigative groups and designated partings hold a meeting and share evidence that they collected at a scene of an accident and during the follow-up. Ultimately, NTSB requires all parties to offer party submissions so that it can undertake an independent analysis of the facts collected.
Evidence Analysis and Reporting
NTSB owns equipped laboratories where it performs a technical analysis of evidence collected at a scene of an accident and from survivors, crew, family members, and the affected airline company. Investigators in the laboratory analyze devices such as flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders and derive important information (Fitzgerald, 2010). These devices provide a profile of aircraft during the flight, and thus, point out possible causes of accidents.
Other materials collected undergo chemical analysis to identify them and link them to the occurrence of an accident if possible. After the analysis is complete, NTSB makes the findings of the investigation public. If NTSB needs to make some clarifications of the findings already made public, it holds a public hearing. In a public hearing, a board member directs the hearing process, parties offer their submissions, and witnesses, if any, offer their testimonies under oath. The final phase of the investigation is that NTSB staff generates a report indicating probable cause of an accident and provide safety recommendations. The five-member board of NTSB then evaluates the generated report and decides whether to approve it or not. The approval of the report means that the findings in it are accurate, objective, and relevant to the aviation industry.
As an independent agency that Congress established in 1967, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has investigated approximately 140,000 accidents and offered about 5,000 safety recommendations. The Air Commerce Act 1926 and the Independent Transportation Safety Board Act 1974 are key Acts that established NTSB. The legislative mandate of NTSB is to investigate accidents in the aviation industry and provide safety recommendations, undertake accurate and objective investigations that are independent, and advocate for the use of its safety recommendations. The investigative process involves selection of ‘Go-Team’, consideration of party participation, the performance of investigation, analysis of findings, and eventually generation of a report.
Ferguson, D., & Nelson, M. (2014). Aviation safety: A balanced industry approach. New York: Cengage Learning. Web.
Fielding, E., Lo, A., & Yang, J. (2011). The national transportation safety board: A model for systemic risk management. Journal of Investment Management, 9(1), 17-49. Web.
Fitzgerald, A. (2010). Air crash investigations: Tenerife Airport disaster: The world’s deadliest plane crash ever. Lexington: Mabuhay Publishing. Web.
Sumwalt, R., & Dalton, S. (2014). The NTSB’s role in aviation safety. Web.
Tochen, D., and Tobin, T. (2013). The anatomy of an NTSB accident investigation: A guide for ‘parties-to-the-investigation’ and their lawyers. New York: Wilson Elser. Web.