Jerome Skinner: System should be tweaked to further empower families

Continental Flight 3407, just like every aviation disaster, is a terrible tragedy for all who lost loved ones and for the Buffalo community in general. And like other air disasters, including the US Air Flight 427 crash near Pittsburgh and the Pan American Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland – it has given the families affected an opportunity to change the system and make family information and input much more important than it previously was.

It was out of the Pan Am 103 disaster that families became more aggressive in formally organizing and seeking involvement in post-accident investigative and fact-sharing activities. It was the long causal uncertainty of the investigation of Flight 427 that stirred the families to lobby for the Family Assistance Office concept put in place by the National Transportation Safety Board after the accident.

My law partner, Jim Hall, was chairman of the NTSB at the time and is thought of as the “father” of the Family Assistance Act. He believes that the office should consistently update the families and provide them with as much assistance as possible in understanding the investigative process.

This is the ideal. In reality it does not always function this way. I have worked in aviation litigation for almost 30 years and I share his opinion. No matter what the differences from family to family or accident to accident, the families always want to know why and how. They also want a voice.

A Buffalo News article seemed to come to grips with the fringes of the argument by dealing with the extreme claims that the system is so flawed that it is “intellectually dishonest,” or that the system is perfect from the viewpoint of the aviation industry that it represents. Neither is true.

Hall and I have a more useful suggestion, and one that will take the considerable muscle of the Flight 3407 families to implement. The existing party system will not be replaced. There are not enough investigators, testing laboratories or dollars to eliminate industry participation and make the system a truly independent process.

But the Office of Family Assistance must be called upon to provide families with consistent and complete information as the investigation is ongoing. This is already supposed to happen, but it will not unless the families demand it. The families could also call for the designation of a technically educated liaison to provide them information.

With that technical person in place, all that is needed is to “tweak” the system to give the families an opportunity to give the board input, offer suggestions and ask questions before the investigation goes into its analysis phase.

If the families ask for full information, a technical head to talk to and an opportunity to speak through that person before the process closes, it will be a big step that benefits all and ultimately enhances aviation safety in the future.