ATW Editor's Blog

Stick to the facts

by Karen Walker
Jul 10, 2013

ALPA’s statement this week that NTSB investigators are prematurely releasing operational data on Asiana flight 214 was met with a curt response from NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman during her media briefing Tuesday.

Asked about ALPA’s complaint, Hersman said transparency was an important aspect of NTSB’s work and that facts – not probable cause – were being released. She said the release of information was consistent with past investigations.

Well, yes and no. Each aircraft crash has unique circumstances. Among the aspects that make this particular incident – and its investigation – unusual is a catastrophic crash combined with a very high survival rate of passengers and crew and the almost immediate and ready availability of huge amounts of data and information. The FDR and CVR were quickly recovered; investigators had rapid access to the wreckage; the vast majority of debris is easily recoverable; and there are many witnesses, including all four pilots.

So there is – as ALPA said – a stunning amount of detailed operational data being released very early on in the investigation process. But that is simply a result of the circumstances of the crash.

ALPA might argue that NTSB should withhold some of the data until further down the investigation process, but everyone, including the general media, knows they have that data and it would be hard for NTSB to explain why it was withholding information. Secrets can just as much fuel what ALPA calls “sensationalization by the media for the purpose of a few headlines” as a rush of facts.

So I don’t agree with ALPA that there has been a “reckless release of information.” For sure, the media has runaway with those facts despite Hersman’s best efforts to describe them in clear, layman’s terms and to repeatedly caution against drawing conclusions and remind the media that this is still the fact-finding part of the investigation; determining the cause will come later.

But inevitably, you have headlines that are sensational, misleading, conclusion jumping and sometimes just plain wrong, as my colleague Aaron Karp points out in his blog.

NTSB cannot be held accountable for media hype or inaccuracy. More guilty are a few “expert” pilots who share their insights and hypotheses with the media and several million members of the public.

However, I do have concerns that some lines are being unnecessarily crossed. In her Tuesday media briefing, for example, Hersman talked about how the Asiana commanding pilot told investigators that he assumed the aircraft’s auto-throttles were engaged and maintaining a speed of 137 knots as the Boeing 777 came in for a landing. The aircraft’s speed dropped to just 103 knots at the time of impact.

That was likely more of the kind of information that ALPA dislikes being released at this stage, but NTSB would be justified in saying it was a fact.

But then Hersman went on to say, “Let me be clear, the crew is required to maintain a safe aircraft. They need to monitor. One of the very critical things that needs to be monitored on an approach to landing is speed.”

That’s a generally-understood fact of commercial aviation that seemed like an unnecessary comment here and which implies judgment. This is where I believe ALPA’s concerns have some justification.

In a world of social media, tweets, YouTube and 24/7 Internet – and let’s face it, a world where passengers walk away from a burning wreck of a large commercial jet and immediately start photography and tweeting their experience – public agencies such as the NTSB have a difficult job to balance.

But there is a difference between issuing hard, known facts and making by-the-way comments. NTSB should stick to the former through the rest of this investigation.

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