Air Experts in Exile?

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The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency in charge of investigating air crashes, has had a welcome slow period. There hasn't been a major aviation accident in the U.S. since November 2001. But safety experts are worried about the future. They claim that under the Bush Administration the board has been stripped of most of its aviation expertise and that it will move further in that direction if President Bush's fourth nominee for the five-member board, Deborah Hersman, is approved. Hersman, 33, a Senate aide who has dealt mainly with truck and train issues, will replace current NTSB member John Goglia, 59, who has spent 30 years working on aviation safety and is the only airline mechanic ever to serve on the board.

By statute, at least three NTSB members are supposed to have "technical qualifications." But that definition has been expanded as never before, say industry safety veterans. With Goglia's departure, there will be only one member, Richard Healing, with extensive experience in airplane-safety issues.

Current chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners responds that the board is responsible for all modes of transport, not just aviation, and that more people died in surface accidents in 2003 than in aviation accidents. (Historically, however, more than 80% of the incidents investigated by the NTSB have involved aircraft.) "Board members are not investigators," she adds. "We review the work of the staff and make sure the recommendations can be and are implemented. This board is clearly qualified for its role." An airline-safety official disagrees: "The NTSB system is designed for the five board members to provide oversight and balance to a staff of investigators and engineers, but this board does not have the appropriate knowledge or background to provide such a balance." A White House official responds, saying, "The President appoints well-qualified individuals who have the expertise to get the job done well."