Thursday, November 10, 2011

Airline Gets a Bitch-Slap from the NTSB. Ouch!

Deborah Hersman photo from NTSB
Its apparent that the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board is a beauty. I've heard people describe her as "angelic". Here's her photo. You be the judge.

But don't let that cutie-pie face deceive you. Deborah Hersman is no delicate flower when it comes to fools or manipulators. In a letter to Pinnacle Airlines today, Ms. Hersman (ordinarily I'd call her Deb but I'm still in shock and awe. Give me a minute to recover.) demands that the company, parent of regional carrier Colgan Air, do what it failed to do during a near year-long investigation; surrender all records having to do with the training and qualifications of the crew of Colgan Air flight 3407.

To recap: Flight 3407, under a contract with Continental Airlines, was on a trip from Newark to Buffalo, New York in February 2009, when it crashed on approach to the airport after the captain responded inappropriately to a stick shaker warning. Forty-nine people on the plane and one person on the ground were killed.

It wasn't much of a secret to investigators that the captain, 47-year old Marvin Renslow, was not a pilot in command of his game from the moment the cockpit voice recorder was played and his motor-mouth monologue could be heard. Sterile cockpit? Not for Renslow.

What was not clear until a New York lawyer made it public two weeks ago, is that at the highest levels of the airline, Renslow was tagged as not-ready-for-prime-time.

 Hugh Russ, with Hodgson Russ, obtained the emails during discovery in the civil action against the airline on behalf of people who lost loved ones in the crash. You can read the emails here. In summary, the documents show that six months before the crash, Renslow's promotion to captain was a source of concern to managers at Colgan.

In an investigation that from the start was about piloting and training, this internal discussion should have been made known to the investigators. But it was not. 

Now do you understand why Ms. Hersman is furious?

Her letter, which you can read here, shows a steely determination that, despite the fact that probable cause has already been determined, the fact-finding is not over.

What's with Colgan? Was it out of the country when Hersman removed American Airlines from an investigation of a runway excursion in December 2010? she took that action after American downloaded the flight data recorder prior to sending it on to the NTSB recorder lab.

And where was Colgan when she scotched the participation of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for speaking on the specifics of a mid-air collision over the Hudson River in August 2009? Looking at the calendar, I'm guessing the safety board would have been in the thick of the flight 3407 investigation right about then.

Don't mess with Deb, that's all I'm saying, because she has little tolerance for folks who don't play by the rules. Government officials are often accused of being too cozy with the industries with which they work. A Congressional investigation and a review by the office of the inspector general of the Department of Transportation into the relationship between the FAA and Southwest Airlines, is just one example.

Deb Hersman is a lovely exception. As a taxpayer, I mean "lovely" figuratively, though really, the word applies however you want to use it.


Anonymous said...

I think that pilot was 47 years old.

Christine Negroni said...

You are correct. My bad.
Thanks for the follow up.

Anonymous said...

I think Deb Hersman is absolutely right. Perhaps we need to make people liable for very hefty fines when they withhold pertinent information from an investigation. Perhaps a fine larger than the liability they were obviously trying to avoid. It's quite ironic that they did not avoid the liability after all, due to the discovery laws. Good for Hugh Russ.(Wow, as a pilot and safety professional, I never thought I would be congratulating a lawyer!)

JG said...

I must respectfully take exception to the entire tone of this article. As much as my sympathies lie with the victims and circumstances surrounding this horrible crash, the underlying issues here are much more serious and complex. NTSB investigations never have been and never will be all about safety, they are firmly looked upon as legal proceedings. Just go to any major litigation firm specializing in airline representation and they will spell out chapter and verse how the financial safety of a company is keenly tied to the NTSB process. If the NTSB conducted investigations in strict confidentiality and only released a report that stated contributing factors instead of the universally condemned singular “probable cause,” then we’d have more of a foundation for an argument here. No, the “people” want a show so that’s what they get; one need only look in the mirror to find the first person to start blaming for all this.
The real issue here is how to draw the line between capricious and emotional judgment of a person’s professional abilities and a professional, rational, and transparent process meant to judge a person’s fitness. If the management wanted to keep this pilot off the line because of their personal opinions, then we should at least be able to keep bad teachers out of our schools for the same reason, despite what the unions think. I seriously doubt the democratic president who appointed Chairman Hersman is about to do that any time soon. No the correct way to deal with situations like this is to have a process that can be accomplished out in the open and not hidden from view.
Of course the same people who feel “entitled” to a spectacle of a public hearing also feel they are “entitled” to cheap transportation. You’ll notice that Chairman Hersman didn’t come out and say “It’s a travesty that for the past 20 years not a single professional airline pilot would recommend this procession to their children and that we as Americans consider it perfectly reasonable to take away a person’s retirement after 30 years of dedicated work. It’s a travesty that we are giving bonuses to Freddy Mack and Fanny Mae executives but for people responsible for a billion dollars in liability it’s OK to pay them $16,000 a year. What are we thinking?!” No she never has and never will say that.
I’m not condoning what happened here, but at my age I’ve found that reveling over a public spectacle is something I’ve grown out of. The Colgan accident was an indictment on the whole transportation industry, because the forces that lead to this accident were not unique. At the risk of being extremely politically incorrect, the American people got what they voted for and paid for in this accident. IF they want that changed, they should start with the person they see while brushing their teeth in the morning.