In his final public appearance as a member of the National
Transportation Safety Board, Richard Healing put his inner engineer on
At the July 26 NTSB meeting, Healing said he was troubled by something
the board's career investigators had discovered when reviewing a fatal
Amtrak derailment in Mississippi last year.
Passengers trying to escape a sleeper car on the derailed train couldn't
get the emergency window to open. The handle didn't work. Perhaps,
Healing said, the bolts holding the handle in place were too small.
Whatever the reason for the failure, Healing wanted that concern
emphasized in the board's final report.
Healing's last day at the board was July 29, a year and a half before
his term expires. His resignation leaves the board -- which investigates
the causes of most major aviation, rail, marine, and other
transportation accidents -- without a member who has a background in
engineering or aviation. The lack of such expertise worries
transportation safety advocates, who fear that the NTSB's effectiveness
will drop. Healing's departure also comes amid some internal turmoil at
the board that has employee representatives warning that morale has sunk
to a new low.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating
transportation accidents and then issuing recommendations on preventing
future accidents. The agency has 400 career employees, including
investigators and engineers, whose job is to determine the causes of
accidents through on-site investigation and data analysis. The technical
staff reports its findings to a five-member board, which decides on the
final recommendations. "The NTSB is the leading international
transportation accident investigation board in the world," said former
NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, now a private transportation consultant. "It has
an outstanding reputation worldwide."
The five members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the
Senate to five-year terms. From among the five, the president nominates
board members to serve two-year terms as chairman and vice chairman.
With President Bush in the White House, three seats on the board are
slated for Republicans and two for Democrats. Senate Minority Leader
Harry Reid, D-Nev., sends Democratic recommendations for the board to
the White House.
With Republican Healing's departure, the board has one Republican and
one Democratic vacancy. The Democratic seat has been vacant since board
member Carol Carmody left at the end of her five-year term in April. The
remaining members are Republicans Ellen Engleman Conners and Mark
Rosenker and Democrat Deborah Hersman. In March, Bush renominated
Engleman Conners as board chairman and Rosenker as vice chairman, but
the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has not yet
taken up their nominations. In the meantime, under the rules of the
board, Rosenker serves as acting chairman and Engleman Conners remains a
regular board member.
None of the remaining three members has a background in aviation or
engineering. Engleman Conners has a law degree and previously served as
an administrator at the Transportation Department. Rosenker has worked
mostly in public affairs, and Hersman was a Democratic congressional
Worries about the lack of engineering or aviation experience began to
bubble up when John Goglia, an engineer who held an FAA aircraft
mechanic's certificate, resigned from the board last year. Goglia
expressed concern that only one member, Healing, remained with an
Healing is a licensed professional engineer who worked on aviation
safety issues for the Navy before his NTSB appointment.
"Most of the
accidents -- probably all of them -- involve technical issues," Goglia
Goglia pointed out a line in the law governing NTSB's operations that
says, "At least three members shall be appointed on the basis of
technical qualification, professional standing, and demonstrated
knowledge in accident reconstruction, safety engineering, human factors,
transportation safety, or transportation regulation."
Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the NTSB, said that the agency has
staff experts in various engineering disciplines and in all forms of
transportation. "It is for the president and Congress to select and
approve board members," she said.
With Carmody's departure this spring, several engineering groups have
been pushing for a replacement with a technical background. The
International Society for Safety Investigators, a group based in
Sterling, Va., sent a letter to senators urging that they support
candidates with "a degree of technical skill."
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest union for commercial
airline pilots, has been the most active group on the issue. It's
backing a specific candidate, Paul McCarthy, who retired last year after
31 years as a Delta Air Lines pilot. McCarthy has also been a safety
representative for the union for 30 years. The association's pick has
been formally backed by 32 House Republicans -- including House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska
-- and ranking panel member James Oberstar, D-Minn., all of whom have
sent letters to the White House supporting McCarthy. Because McCarthy is
from Marblehead, Mass., the 10 members of the Massachusetts delegation
in the House have also sent a letter to the White House, as has Sen.
John Kerry, D-Mass.
Ex Acting NTSB Chairman Carol Carmody
But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is backing a former staffer, Kathryn
(Kitty) Higgins, for the job. Higgins worked in the Clinton White House
and was deputy Labor secretary during the Clinton administration. She
holds a degree in education from the University of Nebraska. Higgins is
also a friend of aviation lobbyist Linda Daschle, wife of former Senate
Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. The United Transportation Union,
which represents mostly railroad workers, supports Higgins's candidacy.
Reid is backing Higgins for the job, but so far the White House has
steered clear of the dispute. The renominations of Engleman Conners as
chairman and Rosenker as vice chairman have been on hold amid the debate
over the Democratic nominee. Now a Republican replacement for Healing
will also have to be picked.
Hall, who was NTSB chairman from 1993 to 2001, said that the board needs
members with technical backgrounds. "It's in statute," he said. "It's a
law." Hall also noted that most of the board's work is related to air
accidents. "It's particularly important to have members who are versed
in aviation," he said.
Tony Jobe, a Louisiana-based lawyer who works with the board, said that
an engineering background isn't necessarily a prerequisite for a good
board member. Members need to be inquisitive, open-minded, and able to
manage and lead the agency's technical staff. "What they really need to
have is a wide range of experience," Jobe said. "It's always ideal and
optimum if they have people from various disciplines."
Meanwhile, Paula Sind-Prunier, vice president of the American Federation
of Government Employees Local 2211, which represents NTSB employees,
called morale at the agency "lower than low." An Office of Personnel
Management survey last year of the agency's workforce found that 39
percent of employees had an unfavorable opinion of the NTSB's senior
Government-wide, 26 percent of employees were critical of their senior
leaders. NTSB employees, compared with employees in other agencies, also
gave the agency's leadership low marks on motivating employees, on
setting high standards of honesty and integrity, and on communicating
with employees. "There is no communication going on between agency
management, midlevel management, and employees," Sind-Prunier said.
There has been tension among the board members as well. The Republican
Healing and Democrats Hersman and Carmody complained in a letter last
August to Engleman Conners that they were being left out of management
In a follow-up letter a month later, the three members told Engleman
Conners that "as evidenced by the fact that we are forced to communicate
with you by letter, we have not found your 'open-door' policy to be
effective, since you have not been available to meet with us over the
course of the last month."
While Healing's publicly stated reason for leaving the board early is
that he wants to spend time with his family, several observers said that
the tensions between Healing and Engleman Conners were a contributing
Despite the controversies, transportation accident rates are at all-time
lows. A major commercial airline crash hasn't occurred in
That may, in part, explain why the NTSB is issuing fewer recommendations
than at any time since 1970. In addition, NTSB spokeswoman Peduzzi said
that the board has changed its recommendations' philosophy. "We are now
focusing on issuing the 'must-have' recommendations, rather than the
'nice to have,' "
Still, some worry about that approach. Goglia, the former member, said
he's concerned that a political desire to show safety
driving the reduction in new recommendations. An outside aviation safety
expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he thought that the
reductions were designed "not necessarily to improve safety, but just to
get the numbers down."
Others see the reductions as a major accomplishment. "Chairman Engleman
Conners and the current board have really worked hard to implement
safety recommendations that were never acted on," Jobe said. "They've
reduced the docket on the open safety recommendations tremendously.
There's never been a board I know of that's accomplished so much."