NTSB chief steps into spotlight

The crash of an Asiana Airlines flight in San Francisco has thrust National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah Hersman into the spotlight.

She’s become the Obama administration’s point-person for discussing the Asiana crash, becoming a familiar face on cable news networks as investigators sift through the clues about what went wrong in the Asiana flight’s botched landing.

Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, said the NTSB chief has been “amazing” in her handling of the Asiana crash.

“People many debate how much transparency is a good thing [in accident investigations,” Schank said. “Obviously she believes a tremendous amount [of information is good].”

Hersman has won plaudits for her deliberative briefing style during updates on the crash of the Asiana airplane, which killed two people and injured 180 others.

“I watched you all weekend. …You've been going out of your way to be as forthright as possible with the press and … people like me,” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said at the conclusion of an interview with Hersman last week.

“I truly appreciate the time and what you're telling the public,” Kilmeade added.

But Hersman’s star turn also has its critics, including a union for commercial airline pilots.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) complained Hersman was releasing an “unprecedented” amount of information about the pilots of the Asiana flight, potentially prejudicing the investigation.

“ALPA is stunned by the amount of detailed operational data from on-board recorders released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this soon into the investigation,” the union said. “The amount of data released publicly during the field portion of the accident investigation is unprecedented.”

But Schank defended Hersman, saying she was careful in her numerous media appearance to stay away from concrete conclusions about the ongoing investigation.

“People are trying to solve the mystery of the plane crash, but she’s done a great job heading some of that off,” Schank said. “She doesn’t know [the cause of the crash], and she has more information than anybody.”

Hersman revealed that the Asiana airplane was flying too slowly as it attempted to land at San Francisco International Airport last week at the conclusion of a 10-hour flight from Seoul, Korea.
The NTSB chief has also revealed that the pilots of the airplane, which was carrying more than 300 people, discussed aborting the attempted landing seconds before the plane crashed into the ground.

Hersman defended the release of the information, saying it was part of the NTSB’s job.

"One of the hallmarks of NTSB's investigations is our transparency," Hersman said in an interview with CNN. "We have a standard process for going to accident sites and providing briefings. Information that we release is factual in nature and it's not subject to change throughout the course of the investigation." 

Eno President Schank said the truth about the appropriateness of release of information about the Asiana crash likely lies in the eye of the beholder. 

“It depends on your perspective and whether you’re a lawyer or not,” Schank said. “From my position as a think tank guy, I think it’s great.”

Schank said Hersman has always “taken an aggressive role at the NTSB.”

“There’s merits to that,” he said. “Number one is that it’s an independent agency that’s not politically motivated. It’s trying to look out for traveling public.”

But Schank said Hersman’s independent streak might have led to her being passed over for a promotion to Transportation secretary in President Obama’s second term. Hersman was rumored to be in the running, but Obama instead selected Anthony Foxx, who was then serving as mayor of Charlotte, N.C.

“It’s unprecedented to go from the NTSB to DOT Secretary,” Schank said. “There’s an inherent tension [between the agencies] because the NTSB is not a part of the DOT, but it’s always messing things up [with new safety recommendations].”

Hersman was considered to be a contender for the Transportation secretary position in part because the chairman of the Senate panel that confirms the nominee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), vocally supported her.

“I don’t know that she had a tremendous amount of support within the administration,” Schank said. “It’s not the Rockefeller administration.”

Former President George W. Bush first appointed Hersman to the NTSB in 2011. Obama made her chairwoman and reappointed her.

Schank said it would be interesting to see whether her high-profile role works against her when her term comes up for renewal at the end of the year.

“They could say ‘she’s done a great job and been really transparent,’ or they could say ‘she’s really outspoken and she doesn’t speak for [the administration], but people may think she does,’” Schank said.

Hersman has said not spoken publicly about the future or missing out on the DOT Cabinet post.

She said this week that she was focused on completing the Asiana investigation.

“We have 24 hours of flight data recorder information; we have two hours of [cockpit voice recordings]; we’ve got good radar returns, and we’re going to put all of that together,” Hersman said in an interview with MSNBC. “We will release more factual information in the coming days.”