Transportation safety board in turmoil
At the July 26 NTSB meeting, Healing said he was troubled by something the board's career investigators had discovered when reviewing a fatal Amtrak derailment in Mississippi last year.
Passengers trying to escape a sleeper car on the derailed train couldn't get the emergency window to open. The handle didn't work. Perhaps, Healing said, the bolts holding the handle in place were too small. Whatever the reason for the failure, Healing wanted that concern emphasized in the board's final report.
Healing's last day at the board was July 29, a year and a half before his term expires. His resignation leaves the board -- which investigates the causes of most major aviation, rail, marine, and other transportation accidents -- without a member who has a background in engineering or aviation. The lack of such expertise worries transportation safety advocates, who fear that the NTSB's effectiveness will drop. Healing's departure also comes amid some internal turmoil at the board that has employee representatives warning that morale has sunk to a new low.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating transportation accidents and then issuing recommendations on preventing future accidents. The agency has 400 career employees, including investigators and engineers, whose job is to determine the causes of accidents through on-site investigation and data analysis. The technical staff reports its findings to a five-member board, which decides on the final recommendations. "The NTSB is the leading international transportation accident investigation board in the world," said former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, now a private transportation consultant. "It has an outstanding reputation worldwide."
The five members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to five-year terms. From among the five, the president nominates board members to serve two-year terms as chairman and vice chairman. With President Bush in the White House, three seats on the board are slated for Republicans and two for Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sends Democratic recommendations for the board to the White House.
With Republican Healing's departure, the board has one Republican and one Democratic vacancy. The Democratic seat has been vacant since board member Carol Carmody left at the end of her five-year term in April. The remaining members are Republicans Ellen Engleman Conners and Mark Rosenker and Democrat Deborah Hersman. In March, Bush renominated Engleman Conners as board chairman and Rosenker as vice chairman, but the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has not yet taken up their nominations. In the meantime, under the rules of the board, Rosenker serves as acting chairman and Engleman Conners remains a regular board member.
None of the remaining three members has a background in aviation or engineering. Engleman Conners has a law degree and previously served as an administrator at the Transportation Department. Rosenker has worked mostly in public affairs, and Hersman was a Democratic congressional staffer.
Worries about the lack of engineering or aviation experience began to bubble up when John Goglia, an engineer who held an FAA aircraft mechanic's certificate, resigned from the board last year. Goglia expressed concern that only one member, Healing, remained with an engineering background. Healing is a licensed professional engineer who worked on aviation safety issues for the Navy before his NTSB appointment. "Most of the accidents -- probably all of them -- involve technical issues," Goglia said.
Goglia pointed out a line in the law governing NTSB's operations that says, "At least three members shall be appointed on the basis of technical qualification, professional standing, and demonstrated knowledge in accident reconstruction, safety engineering, human factors, transportation safety, or transportation regulation."
Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the NTSB, said that the agency has staff experts in various engineering disciplines and in all forms of transportation. "It is for the president and Congress to select and approve board members," she said.
With Carmody's departure this spring, several engineering groups have been pushing for a replacement with a technical background. The International Society for Safety Investigators, a group based in Sterling, Va., sent a letter to senators urging that they support candidates with "a degree of technical skill."
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest union for commercial airline pilots, has been the most active group on the issue. It's backing a specific candidate, Paul McCarthy, who retired last year after 31 years as a Delta Air Lines pilot. McCarthy has also been a safety representative for the union for 30 years. The association's pick has been formally backed by 32 House Republicans -- including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska -- and ranking panel member James Oberstar, D-Minn., all of whom have sent letters to the White House supporting McCarthy. Because McCarthy is from Marblehead, Mass., the 10 members of the Massachusetts delegation in the House have also sent a letter to the White House, as has Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is backing a former staffer, Kathryn (Kitty) Higgins, for the job. Higgins worked in the Clinton White House and was deputy Labor secretary during the Clinton administration. She holds a degree in education from the University of Nebraska. Higgins is also a friend of aviation lobbyist Linda Daschle, wife of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. The United Transportation Union, which represents mostly railroad workers, supports Higgins's candidacy.
Reid is backing Higgins for the job, but so far the White House has steered clear of the dispute. The renominations of Engleman Conners as chairman and Rosenker as vice chairman have been on hold amid the debate over the Democratic nominee. Now a Republican replacement for Healing will also have to be picked.
Hall, who was NTSB chairman from 1993 to 2001, said that the board needs members with technical backgrounds. "It's in statute," he said. "It's a law." Hall also noted that most of the board's work is related to air accidents. "It's particularly important to have members who are versed in aviation," he said.
Tony Jobe, a Louisiana-based lawyer who works with the board, said that an engineering background isn't necessarily a prerequisite for a good board member. Members need to be inquisitive, open-minded, and able to manage and lead the agency's technical staff. "What they really need to have is a wide range of experience," Jobe said. "It's always ideal and optimum if they have people from various disciplines."
Meanwhile, Paula Sind-Prunier, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2211, which represents NTSB employees, called morale at the agency "lower than low." An Office of Personnel Management survey last year of the agency's workforce found that 39 percent of employees had an unfavorable opinion of the NTSB's senior leaders. Government-wide, 26 percent of employees were critical of their senior leaders. NTSB employees, compared with employees in other agencies, also gave the agency's leadership low marks on motivating employees, on setting high standards of honesty and integrity, and on communicating with employees. "There is no communication going on between agency management, midlevel management, and employees," Sind-Prunier said.
There has been tension among the board members as well. The Republican Healing and Democrats Hersman and Carmody complained in a letter last August to Engleman Conners that they were being left out of management decisions. In a follow-up letter a month later, the three members told Engleman Conners that "as evidenced by the fact that we are forced to communicate with you by letter, we have not found your 'open-door' policy to be effective, since you have not been available to meet with us over the course of the last month." While Healing's publicly stated reason for leaving the board early is that he wants to spend time with his family, several observers said that the tensions between Healing and Engleman Conners were a contributing factor.
Despite the controversies, transportation accident rates are at all-time lows. A major commercial airline crash hasn't occurred in three years. That may, in part, explain why the NTSB is issuing fewer recommendations than at any time since 1970. In addition, NTSB spokeswoman Peduzzi said that the board has changed its recommendations' philosophy. "We are now focusing on issuing the 'must-have' recommendations, rather than the 'nice to have,' " Peduzzi said.
Still, some worry about that approach. Goglia, the former member, said he's concerned that a political desire to show safety improvements is driving the reduction in new recommendations. An outside aviation safety expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he thought that the reductions were designed "not necessarily to improve safety, but just to get the numbers down."
Others see the reductions as a major accomplishment. "Chairman Engleman Conners and the current board have really worked hard to implement safety recommendations that were never acted on," Jobe said. "They've reduced the docket on the open safety recommendations tremendously. There's never been a board I know of that's accomplished so much."