The crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 at Little Rock on June 1 has sparked a nasty fight between the airline and the National Transportation Safety Board over just who controls information at a crash site.
The resulting debate involved the highest levels of both organizations and spread to Capitol Hill in a series of letters with copies to top members of Congress with jurisdiction over the safety board and airlines.
At issue was whether two news conferences that American executive vice president Bob Baker held the day after the crash, which killed 10 and injured more than 80, violated board rules by discussing investigative material that by board policy should be released only by the board. The safety board by law has control of a crash scene and investigation.
American and other airlines contend that the board's rules are outdated in an era of instant 24-hour communications. Board officials worry, however, that a crash investigation might be compromised by any effort to satisfy the hunger of the modern 24-hour news cycle.
In the typical flow of information in a crash investigation, a safety board team gathers at a hotel near the crash site, organizes and sends investigative teams into the field. At the end of the day, these teams gather in a "progress meeting" at which all the day's information is reviewed. At the end of the meeting, a board member holds a news conference, usually between 8 and 9 p.m., to review the day's factual information.
A decade ago, this system worked well. Major newspapers and television networks had reporters who would cull sources during the day to produce early-edition stories that would then be updated after the evening news conference.
But today, with 24-hour news channels and television stations with satellite feeds, airline officials and others say that when someone does not give out information rapidly, rumors and "experts" fill the void.
At Little Rock, the television news channels were on the scene, while the safety board's investigative apparatus did not organize in time for a first-day progress meeting -- actually June 2, the day after the late-night crash. Into this void stepped American's Baker, with two news conferences at which he discussed factual information dealing with the crash, including information on the weather, the history of the aircraft and the crew and the name of the dead captain.
Infuriated, safety board Chairman Jim Hall wrote a letter to American Chairman Donald J. Carty that day, expressing "profound disappointment" with the Baker remarks. "Your officers should be familiar with safety board rules that restrict the release of information at an accident scene to the factual releases made by the NTSB," he wrote.
Carty replied two days later with his own broadside, supporting Baker and getting to the heart of the airline's concerns: "Mr. Chairman, the board's rules and procedures of conducting accident investigations cannot place an air carrier in the position with its multiple stakeholders of being evasive, unwilling to disclose facts that are reasonably expected to be in the purview of the carrier, or less than 100 percent candid and honest."
"Unfortunately, the board's rules with respect to dealing with the media have contributed in recent years to increasingly negative public perceptions of the airlines involved in investigations," Carty wrote.
American spokesman Christopher Chiames said the airline does not want to alienate the board, but "there's no other industry that's expected to turn over its reputation to a government agency."
Chiames said government and industry need to begin a dialogue on the issue.
Hall, while not backing down, said he understands the need for changing with the times. He said the board is considering a number of measures to disseminate information more rapidly, including possibly an "instant briefing room" at safety board headquarters with direct links to television networks.
Hall said he was willing to discuss changes with American and the rest of the airline industry, "but the time to change the rules is not on the day of the event."