Portal:National Transportation Safety Board/Accident Investigation Hearings
|National Transportation Safety Board
Accident Investigation Hearings
The National Transportation Safety Board conducts public hearings for the purpose of supplementing the facts discovered during the on-scene and subsequent follow-up investigation of the accident. Public hearings generally are held with regard to a major accident in which there is wide and sustained public interest, or significant safety issues. Testimony is obtained through public hearings to ensure an accurate, complete and well-documented factual record.
The Safety Board is a public agency, and conducts its investigations in a public manner. A public hearing enables the Safety Board to meet its mandate to conduct in-depth objective accident investigations, without bias or undue influence from industry or other government agencies. It is an exercise in accountability: accountability that the Safety Board is conducting a thorough and fair investigation and accountability on the part of industry and other government agencies that they are fulfilling their responsibilities.
The Safety Board does not determine the rights or liability of the parties involved in the accident. Therefore, matters dealing with such rights or liability are excluded from the hearing proceedings. Instead, the hearing is intended to collect information that will assist the Safety Board in its examination of the safety issues arising from the accident.
A hearing involves Safety Board investigators, other parties to the investigation, and expert witnesses called to testify.
At each hearing, a Board of Inquiry is established that is made up of senior Safety Board staff, chaired by the presiding Board Member.
The Board of Inquiry is assisted by a Technical Panel. Some of the Safety Board investigators that have participated in the investigation serve on the Technical Panel. Depending on the topics to be addressed at the hearing, the panel often includes specialists in the areas of aircraft performance, powerplants, systems, structures, operations, air traffic control, weather, survival factors, and human factors. Those involved in reading out the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, and in reviewing witness and maintenance records also might participate in the hearing.
Parties to the hearing are designated by the Safety Board Member who is the presiding officer of the hearing. They include those persons, governmental agencies, companies, and associations whose participation in the hearing is deemed necessary in the public interest and whose special knowledge will contribute to the development of pertinent evidence are designated as parties. Typically, they include the Federal Aviation Administration, operator, airframe manufacturer, engine manufacturer, pilots union, and any other organization that can assist the Safety Board in completing its record of the investigation. Except for the FAA, party status is a privilege, not a right. Parties are asked to appoint a single spokesperson for the hearing.
Expert witnesses are called to testify under oath on selected topics to assist the Safety Board in its investigation. The testimony is intended to expand the public record and to demonstrate to the public that a complete, open and objective investigation is being conducted. The witnesses who are called to testify have been selected because of their ability to provide the best available information on the issues related to the accident.
No news media, lawyers, or insurance personnel are permitted to participate in any phase of the investigation, including hearings.
The decision as to whether a public hearing will be held is made by the Safety Board. Hearings are generally scheduled a sufficient period of time after the accident to allow for documentation and preliminary evaluation of all factual data, preliminary exploration of the issues, conduct of necessary tests, and the preparation or gathering of necessary exhibits.
Prior to the hearing, a prehearing conference is held. It is attended by the Safety Board's Technical Panel and representatives of the parties to the hearing. During that conference, the areas of inquiry and the scope of the issues to be explored at the hearing are delineated and the selection of the witnesses to testify to these issues is finalized.
The witnesses are questioned first by the Board's Technical Panel, then by the designated spokesperson for each party to the hearing and finally by the Board of Inquiry.
The Chairman of the Board of Inquiry is responsible for the conduct of the hearing. The Chairman makes all rulings on the admissibility of evidence, and all such rulings are final.
The record of the investigation including the transcript of the hearing and all exhibits entered into the record will become part of the Safety Board's public docket on the accident.
Following the hearing, investigators will gather additional needed information and conduct further tests identified as necessary during the hearing. After the investigation is complete and all parties have had an opportunity to review the factual record, both from the hearing and other investigative activities, a technical review meeting of all parties is convened. That meeting is held to ensure that no errors exist in the investigation, and that there is agreement that all that is necessary has been done.
On rare occasions, the hearing may be reopened when significant new additional information becomes available, or follow-up investigation reveals additional issues that call for an airing in a public forum such as a hearing. This was most recently done in the Safety Board’s investigation of the September 8, 1994 accident involving USAir flight 427 at Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.
After the hearing and fact finding portion of the investigation are completed, the Safety Board staff completes its analysis of the facts. Parties do not participate in the Safety Board analysis, although they are encouraged to submit findings, recommendations and probable cause statements that they believe the Safety Board should conclude from the record. The final report of the investigation is completed by the Safety Board staff and forwarded to the Safety Board for its deliberation and adoption.
The final report is discussed and adopted by Board Members at a public meeting held in Washington, D.C. Non-Safety Board personnel, including parties, cannot interact with the Board during that meeting. Copies of the final report, containing the findings, probable cause, and safety recommendations are provided to families, the public and the parties.