On the eve of her departure as chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Deborah Hersman defended her record on issues that stirred controversy and made a parting call for a national mandate on protecting small children aboard airliners.
Hersman’s five-year tenure was marked by a sometimes controversial focus on transparency in accident investigations. In remarks on 21 April at the National Press Club, Hersman defended the duty of the board to disclose information.
“We have to have an independent government agency who will ask the right questions, who will publish information even though it’s unfavourable to certain interests – domestic interests – sometimes. We have to have a government that people can trust and that people can count on,” she says.
Herman, who steps down on 25 April, did not shy away from sometimes tense confrontations with aircraft manufacturers, including an unprecedented investigation of a Gulfstream flight test crash in 2010, Boeing’s 787 battery crisis in 2013 and the Asiana Flight 214 accident in San Francisco last July that killed three passengers.
In the last incident, Hersman’s detailed daily briefings following the 6 July crash drew the wrath of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which accused her of implicating the pilots through selective release of facts before all of the information about the crash was known.
Hersman, who will become president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, is a champion of making technological changes to solve safety problems, even if the cost to implement the solution is more than the industry is willing to pay.
Under Hersman’s watch, the crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 in 2009 prompted the NTSB to call for a series of reforms to regional airline operations, resulting in the US Federal Aviation Administration raising training requirements and the minimum duty time for pilots to 1,500h.
The requirements have been criticized by some in the airline industry for raising costs and creating a possible shortage of qualified pilots in the low-paying regional airline industry.
Asked about the criticisms of the rule changes, Hersman was unapologetic.
“That is a good thing. That raises the level of safety for all of us,” she says. “If there are issues that need to be addressed I am absolutely confident in a society like ours with the means that we have as the world’s largest economy that we can figure them out. Safety has to come first.”
Since 1989, the NTSB has called on the FAA to mandate that airlines require passengers to fly with children under two years old in restraint seats, rather than on the parents’ laps. The FAA, however, has resisted the recommendation, citing a study claiming that the rule would force parents to travel by driving on highways, where the risk of a fatal accident is significantly higher than flying.
But Hersman does not accept the FAA’s solution, which is focused on educating the flying public to use child restraint systems.
“Some people say the risk is small. I say, no, a baby is small,” Hersman adds. “We secure laptops and coffee pots but we do not secure our most precious cargo, our children.”