The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does a great job making our skies as safe as possible, by investigating every accident and near accident, so that similar incidents can be avoided in the future. Well, as noted by @RossFeinstein, the American Airlines pilots who recently nearly caused an accident are refusing to cooperate, and the union is defending them.
In this post:
American pilots don’t want recorded interviews
In mid-January, an American Boeing 777 and Delta 737 nearly collided on a runway at JFK. An American 777 was crossing the runway on which a Delta 737 was taking off. Fortunately the air traffic controller realized what was going on, and the Delta pilots responded quickly, so potential disaster was avoided.
The NTSB has been investigating this incident, and has now released its initial report. In addition to receiving written statements from the flight crew, the NTSB asked to conduct recorded interviews with the American pilots who caused this incident. However, the pilots are refusing recorded interviews. Per the report:
In addition to the crew statements, NTSB attempted to interview the American Airlines flight crew three different times. American Airlines cleared the flight crew’s schedule to ensure their availability; however, the flight crew refused to be interviewed on the basis that their statements would be audio recorded for transcription. On behalf of the crew, the APA party representative informed the NTSB that the crew would not consent to participate in audio recorded interviews in any manner. NTSB has determined that this investigation requires that the flight crew interviews be audio recorded and transcribed by a court reporter to ensure the highest degree of accuracy, completeness, and efficiency. As a result of the flight crew’s repeated unwillingness to proceed with a recorded interview, subpoenas for their testimony have been issued.
I mean, I recognize that this incident looks really bad for the American 777 pilots to begin with, and they could be facing some punishment because of this. So I get why they’re not terribly excited about the prospect of a recorded interview. However, they also need to be held accountable and share their version of what happened, in the name of making aviation safer. This is about how to avoid a similar incident in the future.
Is their refusal to be interviewed illegal? No, not as of now. Is it unethical? Absolutely, in my opinion. A few further things to note about this:
- I’m confused as to how American cleared the schedules of these pilots to make time for interviews — you mean these pilots are still flying, and aren’t on (paid) leave for now, until the investigation is concluded?!?
- The reason interviews are so important is because there’s no cockpit voice recorder (CVR) of the incident, as that only records for two hours, and is then overwritten; since the pilots continued flying to London, this critical evidence isn’t available to investigators
- The NTSB has attempted to interview the pilots on January 25 (virtually), February 3 (in person with a court reporter), and February 8 (virtually with a court reporter)
- The NTSB has offered to procure a court reporter to produce a verbatim transcript of the interviews, and has even given pilots the opportunity to review the transcripts for accuracy, but the pilots have consistently refused
- The pilots have now been issued subpoenas for in-person interviews at NTSB headquarters, and they have seven days to respond
How the pilots union is defending this decision
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents pilots at American, has issued a statement regarding the NTSB’s preliminary report. The APA’s defense is essentially that it’s a fairly new practice for the NTSB to request interviews to be recorded, rather than just having investigators take notes.
The APA believes that taking notes has “long been sufficient in producing accurate records.” Here’s the union’s defense:
We join in the goal of creating an accurate record of all interviews conducted in the course of an investigation. However, we firmly believe the introduction of electronic recording devices into witness interviews is more likely to hinder the investigation process than it is to improve it. Not only may the recording of interviews lead to less candid responses from those witnesses who may choose to proceed under such requirements, but the existence and potential availability of interview recordings upon conclusion of an investigation will tend to lead many otherwise willing crew members to elect not to participate in interviews at all. Either outcome would not serve to advance the goal of conducting effective investigations in order to promote aviation safety.
NTSB investigations are intended to be fact-finding proceedings with no adverse parties. We do not believe that this should be an adversarial issue. In fact, the Board’s own published investigation manuals reflect its long-held position that the non-consensual recording of witness interviews is not permitted. Implementing changes to established practices, especially those with a demonstrated history of success, in a way that discourages otherwise cooperative witnesses from participating in the fact-finding process is antithetical to the purpose and goal of the NTSB.
It seems to me like having recorded interviews would be useful in the long run, both if this exact case is being investigated, and if similar cases are being investigated in the future, to be able to establish any trends. It’s odd that the union is okay with a stenographic record being produced, but recorded audio is a big no-no. Is the union just objecting on principle here, or what’s the real difference (honestly, can anyone please answer that)?
The union consistently talks about how safety is paramount, and everything should be done in the name of safety. The head of the APA even recently talked about how the union is “fighting for that margin of safety.” But when it comes to recorded pilot interviews, we’re not going for best practices, but rather for what’s good enough.
I understand that the union is supposed to look out for its members, but the union loses a lot of respect with the public for things like this. The union can’t argue that safety is the most important thing in the world, and then defend pilots when they almost cause a catastrophe, supporting their lack of transparency. Pick a lane!
The NTSB is attempting to investigate a near accident that happened at JFK a few weeks back, as an American 777 accidentally crossed a runway while a Delta 737 was taking off. Based on everything we know so far, the fault for this lies squarely with the American pilots, who taxied onto a runway they weren’t cleared to cross.
Now the pilots are refusing to participate in recorded NTSB interviews, as the NTSB recently started recording these kinds of interviews. The union is defending this decision by claiming that recording interviews is unnecessary. It’s bizarre to me that the union is good with stenographic record, but not with a transcript of what happened.
The pilots will now be subpoenaed to appear in-person in Washington, and will have seven days to respond. I’m curious to see how this plays out.
What do you make of these American pilots refusing to be interviewed?