The industry states that testimony about grief is only appropriate to a trial and to allow victims families to participate in the activities of the NTSB would be a "gold rush" plaintiffs' lawyers became part of the investigations" (Alvarez 1999:2). Even if victims' families did not initially think anything on the fault of the airlines had transpired, their lawyers would encourage them to believe so, and approach supposedly objective research like private investigators rather than scientists. In short, including alternative voices and interests would not promote objectivity either and advance the public good in creating a socially responsible airline industry, even though the adversarial process is admittedly part of the American trial system.
After all, the argument goes, a hearing is not supposed to be a trial, it is supposed to be fact-finding mission. "It promotes a rush to sign up clients...It's not good public policy. Families inherently do not have technical expertise in how planes are built and run," and families, often financially desperate after a loved one who was 'a provider' had died "will likely believe whatever their money-hungry attorneys tell them to believe, attorneys who are not necessarily objective either, or experts on the industry," said one airline industry representative (Alvarez 1999:2).
But an air safety investigator in private practice who once worked for NTSB said there is a conflict-of-interest. "It's naive to think that good employees won't be protective of their company...Are they going to tell you the complete unadulterated truth about their aircraft? These people are defense-oriented...They are preparing for litigation...information they give and get at the parties gives them an advantage in litigation," and stated that "deliberate delays, shadings, or misleading statements on the part of party members," during an investigation had come to be expected, from every major carrier (Alvarez 1999:2). In fact, rather than being biased, he stated that he had personally experienced "numerous examples of plaintiff-hired investigators who discovered evidence missed by NTSB party members although the airline industry told them there was no such evidence to be found (Alvarez 1999:2).
The stakes are high, regarding an accident report on a crash. Getting a favorable report from the NTSB, especially after a highly publicized crash of dubious cause is called "getting the cop" or getting a representative with a high level of jury credibility on one's side. It is difficult for a plaintiff's attorney to present a case to a jury if the report's evidence seems to clear the airlines of all blame. And as police are accused of being overly in favor the side of the law in criminal cases, the NTSB is accused of being overly generous to the industry in their findings, even though unlike a police officer, they are not officially supposed to represent the law.
In fact, as a government agency, they are supposed to work for the people, not for "no matter how hard the NTSB tries to avoid the legal repercussions of its work, the fact remains that its report is critical to the outcome of legal proceedings -- the astronomical liability" of today's increasingly litigious society virtually guarantees that its findings determine if a crash will become fodder for civil litigation (Alvarez 199:1). The terrorist events of recent years, along with "rapidly expanding technologies" means the causes of airplane crashes will become more difficult to determine" and make the NTSB's final reports and reviews of crashes even more crucial, should there be future litigation. Yes, "The NTSB isn't charged with finding liability...It's charged with finding out what happened" but this distinction has become increasingly "academic" (Alvarez 1999:2).
What should the social and legal responsibilities of the NTSB be, given that it does not wish to cater either to industry whims or the whims of plaintiff ambulance-chasers? One could argue that short-term catering to the whims of airline companies could hurt both consumer safety and confidence in the industry in the long run, if consumers fear that no agency is objective enough to protect their needs. An alternative solution might be to include a more representative group of experts into the membership of the NTSB, given that many members are currently pilots. One former pilot wrote: "Most pilots flying airliners will agree with a general statement that the less government regulation is involved, the better a given piloting situation will be. That is because they have dealt with government at an individual level and witnessed what often is a recalcitrant, bureaucratic approach that seems, and usually is, ludicrous....Most airlines and aircraft manufactures also will agree with the same general statement because the government costs them plenty of money...and desire zero regulation at all, This just can not be...Does anyone believe that Boeing would spend $128 million, to redesign and retrofit rudder parts of older 737 aircraft, if the FAA had not [required] it [do so]?" (Ponder, 1998).
Using independent experts during crash investigations could also challenge the bunker mentality that can affect even the most nonpartisan organization. Even before the 9/11 attacks, a 1991 study in Airline Industry News conducted by the RAND Corporation noted that the organization was overburdened and "overstretched" as workers often worked 50-60 hours a week, even when no investigation was being conducted (1999: 1). Including independent officials into the NTSB investigational proceedings, not necessarily plaintiff's attorneys, but scientific experts without ties to pilots unions or corporations with a financial stake in the findings seems necessary, for the image and sanity of workers at the agency and for the true peace of mind of victims' families (if not their lawyers)
Alvarez, Michael. (6 Dec 1999). Crash course in ethics. Salon.com. Retrieved 1 Jul 2007 at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/12/06/ntsb/index1.html
Elias, Barbara (Ed). (11 Aug 2006). Government releases detailed information on 9/11 crashes. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 196. Retrieved 1 Jul 2007 at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB196/index.htm.
Investigations Involving Criminal Activity. (2007). NTSB Official Website. Retrieved 1 Jul 2007 at http://www.ntsb.gov/Abt_NTSB/invest.htm#criminal
NTSB resources overstretched and in urgent need of management reform claims study. (Dec 1999). Airline Industry News. Retrieved 1 Jul 2007 at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CWU/is_1999_Dec_13/ai_62834932
Ponder, T.D. (1998). "Bias" Questioned. Airline Safety. Letter to the Editor. Retrieved 1 Jul 2007 at http://www.airlinesafety.com/letters/bias.htm