More Investigators, But Still Too Few

Reinforcements are coming, allowing a small dent in the chronic understaffing problem at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on 2 March 2010 approved H.R. 4714, the NTSB Reauthorization Act, which provides funding for fiscal years 2011 through 2014. The funding will provide for a staff increase of about 77 people. The House bill will have to be reconciled with the Senate bill. Once both are combined into one bill, it will go to the appropriators, who will then determine how much money to give the Safety Board. So what the final numbers will be, which will determine how many staffers can be added, will not be known for some time.

However, 77 additional people looks probable and is as good a number as any for discussion purposes.

Put that number in context: the NTSB currently has about 400 people total. That overall figure makes the NTSB one of the smallest agencies in government. Approving a strength increase to 477 is a paltry 19% increase (over a 4-year period, mind).

Why do I say paltry? Because the NTSB is charged with investigating not only accidents but incidents (lesser on the scale of damage and injury) across the board: aviation, maritime, highway, rail and pipeline accidents and incidents.

Let’s look at aviation. The NTSB currently has about 135 aviation investigators and report writers/editors. Of course the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering supports all modes (vehicle performance, safety studies, vehicle recorders, materials laboratory), and more than half the work done by the office (presently about 45 employees) is in aviation.

Let’s say 22 of those 45 are devoted to aviation. Add them to the 135 in the office of aviation safety, and the grand total is 157 devoted to aviation accidents, incidents and related efforts (e.g., downloading flight recorders, air traffic control radar tapes, and so forth in support of an investigation).

Borrowing from my Marine Corps experience, 157 is the rough equivalent of a reinforced rifle company – about one fifteenth of a Marine division. In other words, a rifle company is a tiny but important part of a division.

In the NTSB, those 157 people have to cover the entire aviation industry. Not only scheduled airline accidents (Part 121), but air taxi and charter operations (Part 135) and general aviation (Part 91) accidents. The NTSB also gets involved in foreign aircraft accident investigations as an accredited representative – a further tasking for the 157 chosen few.

Roughly, the NTSB has one investigator for every 1,000 airplanes out there in U.S. registry. For every accident, there are roughly 100 incidents. Incidents are often precursors to the more serious accidents, so examining the circumstances surrounding an incident may help stave off an accident. However, NTSB staffing has been too thin to devote much (if any) effort to incidents. Accident investigation has been all-consuming.

Think of what the NTSB should be doing, which includes more special studies like the safety implication of glass cockpits, just concluded. (See Aviation Safety Journal, ‘Glass Cockpits Not Necessarily Safer Than Traditional Instruments’) Why, the NTSB could gainfully employ double the number of people it currently has. That would include not only increasing the aviation investigations to cover more incidents, but also to cover accident and incident investigations in other modes of transportation.

Not just 477 people, but a strength of 800 is not unreasonable to do all the jobs properly.

Neither the NTSB (which requested the extra folks) nor Congress (which approved the plus-up) is thinking bold enough about the size of the U.S. transportation industry and the fact that accidents and incidents provide windows into large systemic breakdowns.