After the government shut down, two people died when a small plane crashed outside a house in Ohio, seven died in a Florida highway collision, and almost two dozen others have perished in transportation accidents that federal safety investigators normally would have probed.
Instead, the investigators have been furloughed.
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The sidelining of virtually all of the National Transportation Safety Board’s 397-person staff is part of an increasing crisis for American aviation as the shutdown drags on, including unpaid, overstressed air traffic controllers and TSA baggage screeners. The impasse is forcing the NTSB to be selective about which accidents it can investigate using unpaid employees, while delaying current investigations into incidents such as a fatal Southwest Airlines engine failure and the death of an Arizona pedestrian struck by a self-driving Uber.
The implications could extend well beyond the shutdown: The NTSB’s probes are important not just in pinpointing the cause of specific accidents but in making recommendations for preventing future ones.
The independent board has no regulatory or enforcement authority, but federal agencies and lawmakers take its advice seriously. The NTSB has issued more than 14,000 safety recommendations over the decades, about 80 percent of which have been adopted, board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said in a 2016 speech. Adopted recommendations include those on wind shear, avoiding midair collisions, smoke detectors, drinking laws, airbags, brake lights, commercial driver’s licenses, drug and alcohol testing for transportation jobs, and an anti-collision technology for railroads called positive train control.
When the shutdown concludes, the NTSB can go back and investigate the incidents that it has skipped during the past month. But by then, memories and physical evidence will have deteriorated, said Christopher Hart, a former board chairman.
“A lot of the key evidence that they’re looking for is definitely perishable, and that’s why time is of the essence when these crashes occur,” Hart said.
Though most investigations can take over a year to conclude, the NTSB can make urgent recommendations if it finds a problem. In 2009, for instance, after a Metro train slammed into another train in Washington, D.C., killing nine people, NTSB discovered an issue with the trains’ electronic signals.
“Our concern was that other mass transit systems in the country that had similar detection software might also be encountering the same problem,” Hart said. “So that’s why long before the accident investigation report was complete on that one, we put out an urgent recommendation saying, ‘You need to check your system and see whether it also had this’” issue.
Dolline Hatchett, the acting director of the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications, said the agency is “missing prevention opportunities.” Evidence from accidents “could potentially support safety recommendations that, once adopted, could prevent future accidents and save countless lives.”
“The NTSB wants to ensure safety across the transportation spectrum, and we are unable to do that as long as this shutdown continues,” Hatchett said.
Ninety accidents have occurred mostly in the United States since late December that, under ordinary circumstances, the NTSB would have at least considered investigating. For about 60 of those, the extent of the agency’s probe would mostly be to gather data. But in more than 20 instances — including more than a dozen aviation accidents the agency must investigate by statute — the NTSB would have sent investigators to the site immediately after the incident.
In one instance, it’s had to call in help from overseas. Earlier this week, a small plane went missing somewhere between France and the United Kingdom and is presumed to have crashed in international waters. On board was a pilot and a professional soccer player. Typically, the NTSB would take the lead in the investigation because the plane was registered in the United States. Instead, the agency has asked its counterpart in the United Kingdom to step in.
For five accidents, the shutdown hampered NTSB so much that it couldn’t collect enough evidence to decide whether an investigation was warranted, including a freight train derailment in Kansas that killed one person.
The NTSB has recalled some of its investigators to work without pay, but almost exclusively to assist other countries.
The agency called in a handful of investigators to help Indonesia analyze the cockpit voice recording from a crash last year in which a Boeing 737 MAX plunged into the ocean minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, leaving 189 dead. It recalled another investigator at the request of the State Department to provide “on-scene support” to Mexico’s Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics after a state governor and her husband, a former governor, were killed in a helicopter crash. An investigator is also “overseeing the disassembly and examination” of a U.S.-made engine that failed on a Korean Air flight.
In those cases, NTSB is “focused on addressing any potential aviation safety concerns that could immediately threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property,” and is therefore complying with the rules for recalling workers from furlough, Hatchett said.
But other investigations that were underway before the shutdown have come to a halt. Those include the derailment of an Amtrak train in Washington state that killed three people, natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person, the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Florida that killed six and a limousine crash in New York state in which 20 people died.
Hart warned that the furloughs could cause long-term harm to the NTSB by frustrating dedicated investigators who may look for other jobs.
“These are dogged detectives who don’t like to leave things undetermined,” Hart said. “And I’m frankly concerned that we may lose some of them because they may go on to other areas where they don’t have this kind of uncertainty. These are all highly trained people that could earn a lot more money in industry, but they don’t because they love what they do.”