NTSB, Union Clash Over Controller's Possible Role in Crash Over Hudson River

Wreckage from the crash is pulled from the Hudson River. Investigators have made a point of an air traffic controller's phone call before the collision.
Wreckage from the crash is pulled from the Hudson River. Investigators have made a point of an air traffic controller's phone call before the collision. (By Seth Wenig -- Associated Press)
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The National Transportation Safety Board and the union representing the nation's air traffic controllers remain at odds over details of last month's deadly collision of a small plane and a helicopter over the Hudson River. In contention are agency recommendations, issued before the completion of the NTSB's investigation and statements, that appear to point a finger at the performance of the air traffic controller who cleared the plane for takeoff.

Observers call the public dispute between the NTSB and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association unusual because the NTSB seldom removes unions or other groups from investigations. The NTSB excluded the 19,000-member union after NATCA aired its complaints.

Nine people died when a single-engine plane collided with a tourist helicopter near the New Jersey side of the Hudson River on Aug. 8. The plane had taken off moments before from Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey, a spot popular with small-aircraft pilots.

Late last week, the NTSB issued five safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, urging, among other things, more attentiveness from air traffic controllers. The NTSB expressed concern that the Teterboro "controller was not fully engaged in his duties."

NATCA criticized the recommendations, saying the NTSB had rushed to release its preliminary findings ahead of an FAA report, expected Wednesday.

"The only answer is that we're an independent agency," NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said. "We will release information and recommendations whenever we feel is appropriate for our investigation."

"They do issue recommendations, but they don't start naming causal factors before they complete their investigation and put out a report," NATCA President Patrick Forrey said.

The FAA announced on Aug. 13 that the air traffic controller at Teterboro had made a personal telephone call in the moments before the collision but said the call was not a factor in the crash. The next day, the NTSB confirmed the phone call but did not rule it out as a factor. The NTSB said the controller had failed to warn the plane of nearby traffic, which included the helicopter.

The union disputed the NTSB's statements about the location of the helicopter and privately asked officials for a correction, according to union spokesman Doug Church. NATCA also argued that the NTSB had unfairly assigned blame to the air traffic controller before the conclusion of its investigation. The agency did not immediately change its statement, and the union went public with its concerns on Aug. 17, Church said.

"We could allow the public and everyone else to wrongly accuse our controller, or we could speak out and make it clear that he could not have stopped it," he said.

That same day, the NTSB corrected its original statement to say that the helicopter appeared on the controller's radar scope 7 seconds after he had told the pilot to contact the tower at Newark Liberty International Airport -- and it removed NATCA as a party to the crash investigation. The union had violated its agreement with the NTSB that it not publicly discuss the investigation before a final report, Holloway said.

Removing a union from a probe is rare, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall said.

"We had some problems, but they were usually worked out without any public give-and-take, like you're seeing here," he said.

Hall defended the NTSB's decision. "If there's something that comes to their attention that needs to be dealt with right away that they feel is a safety risk, it's very standard for them to issue recommendations," he said.

The union should avoid defending an air traffic controller who was making a personal phone call while on duty, said Bob Gilson, a former NTSB labor relations official.

"They lose credibility with the American people when they do that," he said.

Officials with both the union and FAA said there is no rule forbidding personal calls while in the tower. While Forrey acknowledged that other controllers have placed similar calls while on duty, he said the controller's call in this case was inappropriate. "But the fact of the matter is, you're going to be distracted here and there once in a while," Forrey said. "This has no factor with this incident. It had no bearing on this whatsoever."

NATCA said that it has always treated its access to investigations with seriousness and that it plans to work with the NTSB and the FAA to review the findings of the investigation despite the disagreements.

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