The National Transportation Safety Board has excluded American Airlines from participating in an accident investigation. The NTSB made the unusual decision because American Airlines improperly accessed black box information without the participation of the NTSB and other authorities.
Under the rules governing U.S. aviation accident investigations, the parties potentially responsible for an accident (e.g., the airplane manufacturer, the airline, the maintenance company, etc.) are permitted to participate in the investigation as “party representatives.” The rationale for this rule is that the NTSB must rely on the expertise of these parties. For example, the manufacturer of the airplane is able to identify components recovered in the wreckage and may be able to test the components to determine whether a mechanical failure caused the accident. If the NTSB suspects an engine failure, the engine manufacturer can take the engine and bench test it to see if it was capable of powering the aircraft. Of course, in doing the test the manufacturer may also destroy evidence that could identify problems with the engine and it is important that the NTSB fully document the condition of the wreckage before any testing is done.
The families of victims are not allowed to participate in the investigation, which is hard for many to accept because the families have the most vested interest in making sure the investigation is done properly and that the NTSB comes to the correct result about what caused the accident. No one cares more about the finding out what caused an accident than a family that lost a loved one. The representatives of parties permitted to participate in the investigations have conflicting interests. While they may be legitimately interested in the safety of their products or operations, a finding that something they did caused or contributed to an accident may have very serious financial implications.
By excluding American Airlines, the NTSB sent an important message to the parties permitted to participate in investigations. The NTSB should go one step farther and permit aviation victims’ to participate in the investigation. The oft-cited reason for not allowing the victims to
have their representatives participate is that they do not have the “expertise” that the NTSB needs, but perhaps the “expertise” that they would bring is to help the NTSB ensure that the investigation is not wrongly influenced by participants who may steer the investigation in the wrong direction to avoid financial responsibility.