8/26/13, Wall Street Journal article:
By Andy Pasztor
Friction between federal aviation regulators and crash investigators threatens to impede a probe into a Southwest Airlines Inc. landing accident last month in New York, according to the carrier’s safety officials.
The July 22 accident at LaGuardia Airport, which resulted in more than a handful of injuries but no fatalities, underscores growing tension between experts at the National Transportation Safety Board, responsible for uncovering the causes of accidents, and regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration interested in swiftly punishing pilots or bringing civil-enforcement actions against airlines in the wake of a crash.
That inherent conflict is now exacerbated, according to industry and government-safety experts, by the growing importance of social media in disseminating air-safety information. As a result, many airline officials increasingly feel trapped between competing demands for ever faster releases of information, coming from passengers as well as different parts of the government and even their own top executives.
Escalating public pressure for nearly instantaneous details about airliner incidents and accidents has shaken up the previously staid, traditional world of accident investigations. The safety board’s leaders increasingly are turning to Twitter to rush out details of significant findings—sometimes before advising on-site investigators of impending messages.
Those unconventional announcements in turn are prompting the FAA and industry players to speed up their internal investigations and responses.
The LaGuardia situation “is a good example of the multitude of information requests that come into the airline” after a typical crash or major incident, according to Timothy Logan, Southwest’s senior risk-management official. Even before investigators from the safety board had completed their preliminary inquiry, he said, regulators from a number of different offices within the FAA already were seeking some of the same information from the carrier.
“I’m not sure it serves anybody’s purpose,” said Mr. Logan, because it wasn’t coordinated properly and in any event, “the safety investigation should take precedence.” FAA officials helping the NTSB on investigations are prohibited from working on potential enforcement cases.
About a week after the LaGuardia accident, Mr. Logan told an international safety conference last week in Vancouver, British Columbia, one part of the agency asked Southwest for information related to the plane’s “black boxes,” or onboard data and voice recorders.
“I haven’t even seen it yet, how am I going to give it to you?” he recalled responding. The FAA is barred from using cockpit-voice recordings for enforcement.
“We’re in the middle” of the tussle, Mr. Logan told the conference, because there is “certain information we’re told we can’t provide” to the FAA.
Calling the situation “very frustrating,” he said “we need to get this worked out” to avoid broader delays and complications that could affect investigations of many other commercial-aviation accidents.
“We have four different parts of the agency coming at us” at the same time, Mr. Logan told a handful of attendees at the conference after his prepared remarks.
Pilot-union leaders at Southwest have privately expressed the same general complaints to the FAA, according to people familiar with the details.
Ten of the 149 people aboard the Southwest Boeing 737 were injured when the plane landed on its front wheels at LaGuardia, causing the nose gear to collapse and substantially damaging other parts of the aircraft. The high-profile accident temporarily closed the busy runway.
The captain of Southwest Flight 345, arriving from Nashville, took the unusual step of taking over the controls during the last 400 feet of the descent, and investigators are now trying to determine if she throttled back the engines prematurely. The plane switched to a nose-down position in the final four seconds of flight.
The NTSB has said it found no airplane malfunctions that could have caused the botched landing, though investigators haven’t yet disclosed their conclusions.
The FAA said it is “supporting the NTSB and examining our areas of responsibility to determine if any near-term action is necessary to ensure safe operations,” but a spokeswoman declined to elaborate. Also on Sunday, a Southwest spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of the probe but said its quality hasn’t been hurt.
In an email response, an NTSB spokesman said the board relies on social media since many journalists use Twitter because “it is instantaneous and often meets their deadlines.” The statement called it a valuable tool “to inform the media and the general public about the status of accident investigations.”
The Southwest probe highlights the dramatic procedural and attitude changes already embraced by Southwest’s safety team in this new era.
Dennis Post, the airline’s senior accident investigator, told the same Vancouver conference that the prevalence of Twitter and videos taken by passengers using cellphones has drastically altered the way Southwest begins examining in-flight emergencies.
“Our passengers are our first investigators,” Mr. Post said, calling them “on-scene reporters” eager to share information about all types of events.
Every day, he added, “we have teams pulling everything we can off social media” in order to create a novel warning system about unusual events throughout Southwest’s nationwide network.
In the event of a crash, Mr. Logan said aircraft makers and many other airlines resort to the same Internet-savvy tactics.
But he worries that the resulting flurry of tweets and videos could end up confusing, rather than enlightening, most people.
“The last thing we need is a [public relations] war in the midst of a significant event,” he told accident investigators last week.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
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