The crash of Asiana Flight 214 is giving the public an unprecedented front-row seat to the workings of federal accident investigators, and the new transparency has some people asking if the rush of details might lead to a dangerous rush to judgment.
Among those most incensed are airline pilots, a group understandably guarded against premature conclusions that the crash in San Francisco was the result of pilot error. The largest U.S. pilots union, Air Line Pilots Association, said it was “stunned” by the quantity of Asiana flight information made public this week by the National Transportation Safety Board. “The amount of data released publicly during the field portion of the accident investigation is unprecedented,” the union said on Monday, two days after the crash. By Tuesday, the union had faulted the NTSB’s “release of incomplete, out-of-context information” for the “rampant speculation about the cause of the accident.”
For its part, the NTSB has made heavy use of Twitter to release photos of the Asiana crash site and images from inside the wrecked plane, as well as updates on its work beyond the daily news briefings. The information blizzard isn’t reserved only for the high-profile San Francisco crash: NTSB officials have also been using Twitter to send out a steady stream of photos and updates from the investigation of a July 7 plane crash southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, that killed 10 people.
The agency began embracing the social-media platform about two years ago, drawn by the immediacy of the new medium, explains NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway in an interview on Wednesday. “For one thing,” he says, “we’ve been told by the media that they follow people on Twitter, and we notice that since we’ve been doing it, folks have been following us.” The NTSB has also adopted Google’s YouTube as a way to distribute videos of its investigation briefings.
The online information emerging from the latest investigation sites contrasts markedly with that following the February 2009 crash of a Continental Express flight approaching the airport in Buffalo, killing 49 on the regional plane and one person on the ground. There was no social-media stream about that investigation.
“One of the hallmarks of the NTSB is our transparency,” NTSB Chariman Deborah Hersman said on Tuesday, in response to criticism from the pilots’ union. “We work for the traveling public. There are a lot of organizations and groups that have advocates. We are the advocate for the traveling public. We believe it’s important to show our work and tell people what we are doing.” To that end, the NTSB even lists its protocols (PDF) online for dealing with the press.
And while it’s true that the NTSB’s daily release of facts has added fodder to a seemingly endless online conversation regarding the crash, it’s also true that people love to speculate when tragedy strikes—with or without facts. That much is evident on forums such as Flyertalk.com, a forum for aviators and airline enthusiasts. Among the samplings from the website:
astroflyer: “In the age of twitter, I don’t think it makes sense to withhold any findings at all until 9 months down the road. A large plane crashed at a major American airport. People want to know why and whether the cause might be relevant to their own future flying.”
Milepost: “I expect tomorrow D. Hersman will be detailing the pilots meals and calorie counts, their favorite colors, and answering the eternal question: boxers or briefs. I still think too much raw data is being disclosed in isolated bits and pieces that allow for too much amateur conjecturing, without having gone through the critical review and piece-it-all together analysis.”
halls120: “I think she is a breath of fresh air amongst government bureaucrats.”
Part of this trend is simply the wholesale transfer of once-obscured data to the Internet. Government reviews of aviation are no different in this regard than, say, restaurant inspections. One can, for example, use Web tools to track the speed, location, direction, altitude, and rate of climb and descent for nearly every U.S. airplane flight now—almost in real time. In the Asiana crash, armchair aviators can review the radar data showing how pilots maneuvered the Boeing 777 on its approach into San Francisco and listen to the crew’s communications with air traffic controllers.
It’s this new era that is making the NTSB respond with more information—faster—argues Micheline Maynard, a former transportation reporter for the New York Times, in a Forbes.com column this week. And observers who aren’t in the pilots unions seem to like the NTSB’s open approach: “Who’s with me in starting a fan club for the NTSB’s Chair, Deborah Hersman?” tweeted Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing.
Even in a world whose crash investigations play out on social media, you still won’t find an NTSB Facebook page. “We just haven’t gotten around to doing Facebook,” says Holloway, the agency spokesman.