Terence Smith talks with outgoing Clinton Administration Transportation Secretary Jim Hall.
TERENCE SMITH: Since 1994, Jim Hall has presided over a period of unprecedented activity for the National Transportation Safety Board. The Board is responsible for determining the causes of accidents in all modes of transportation, including air, rail, sea, and highway-- but air crashes get the most attention. With Hall as chairman, the Board conducted the two longest and most complicated investigations in the agency's history: U.S. Air Flight 427, a Boeing 737 that crashed near Pittsburgh in 1994; and TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 that crashed off Long Island, New York, in 1996. Both investigations took more than four years to complete. Two major aviation accidents remain unsolved: The October 1999 Egyptair crash off the Atlantic Coast, and the January 2000 Alaska Airlines crash off California. Jim Hall steps down as NTSB Chairman January 18. He joins us now.
Welcome to the broadcast. We appreciate this chance to get a little sense of these seven years, the experiences, what you learned from it. And given those seven years, i wonder what you'll take away from the experience, about aviation, about air safety, about the business, the art, and the science of investigating airline crashes.
JIM HALL: Well, i guess i take away how important the work is. The horror of an aviation accident... I can remember very well in Hibbing, Minnesota, when i was dispatched to my first accident when I had first joined the Board. Those images are etched with all of us, i believe, that have this responsibility. And therefore, i think it really drives everyone that works at the Board and those that are parties to an accident investigation, to find the cause, to prevent this type of horror from being visited on anyone else.
TERENCE SMITH: And in fact, under your tenure the NTSB took on the job and the assignment of dealing with the families of victims, something the airlines had dealt with before. Why did you do that? What was the thinking behind it?
JIM HALL: Well, it came out of my experiences in Tennessee and Governor McGruder's office. If you have a natural disaster, a tornado or a flood, then you had the coordinated services of the state and the community there to assist the victims. That structure was not in place for aviation disasters that were very similar to, you know, to a catastrophic natural disaster. So...
TERENCE SMITH: And the aftermath goes on for so long.
JIM HALL: Right. And there is a built-in feeling that you have to deal with in terms of the families having to deal with the airline on which their loved ones were traveling.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you quickly about the two unresolved crashes that we mentioned in the introduction here. The Egyptair crash: Where do we stand on that?
JIM HALL: Well, of course, both of those are in the investigative process, so we would not consider them unsolved as... but the Egyptair, the report is being written. The Board found no mechanical problem with the aircraft, however, the work is continuing on the preparation of the report. A great number of tests were conducted. There was a great deal of assistance and cooperation between both the American and the Egyptian authorities, and i would hope that in the spring, that there would be a final report that would, could be reviewed by the Egyptian authorities and then, shortly thereafter, a report for the people.
TERENCE SMITH: What about the notion that was abroad... that the copilot might have actually committed suicide, taken the plane down deliberately? Any support for that?
JIM HALL: Well, i think the investigation is going to speak, you know, to the facts that have been determined as a result of our work and our analysis. And there may be a different point of view that is put forth by some of the other parties to the investigation that have been expressed, specifically by the Egyptian authorities. But all of that information, all of those facts will be out there for the public to view. That is our process, it's an open process. I think it's the strength of the Board that we are there to gather the facts and to provide an analysis of the facts, and all of our investigations are open to the public and to public view.
TERENCE SMITH: The Alaska Airlines crash more recently, where does that stand?
JIM HALL: Well, we just concluded a hearing that was chaired by member John Hammersmith on that particular event. There is a lot of important work looking at the jack screw, the design of that jack screw, the failure modes of that jack screw.
TERENCE SMITH: That's in the rear assembly?
JIM HALL: In the rear assembly of the aircraft. Obviously, a number of things looking at in terms of the procedures and things that occurred, but again, both of those are active investigations and the Board's work will speak at the time that the report is forwarded for final action by the five Board members.
TERENCE SMITH: I think people wonder, and maybe you can explain, why it takes so long to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
JIM HALL: Well, of course, aviation accidents are unique in that they are almost always very high-speed, violent events in which attempting to reconstruct what happened is a challenge. And the technology that is on a modern aircraft of course, is vast and trying to be sure that you are correct, that you have eliminated all the possibilities before you come up with what the Board says is the probable cause, it's... it has to be done in a responsible manner, and many times to do it responsibly requires time.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there technology that could be introduced to airplanes that would make it possible to arrive more easily at a conclusion after a crash, I mean, a black box for the whole plane so to speak? You've mentioned cameras in the cockpit.
JIM HALL: Well, i really think that we aren't making use of cameras in the cockpit, both for the safety of the flight, as well as we have seen with this recent British Airways Kenya accident, for the safety of the crew operating the aircraft. There is no...
TERENCE SMITH: The pilots resist this?
JIM HALL: There is a resistance because of privacy, because they feel the intrusive media society that we live in today would love to have those last moments of a crew before the plane crashed for dramatic effect. And they feel that, outside of the United States, as a result of the use of a cockpit voice recorder transcript out of the Cali, Colombia, crash, that they can't have the type of security to be sure that their privacy is not invaded and their loved ones further suffer, because of the media exploitation of those final seconds.
TERENCE SMITH: But you would like to see it? You think it would help?
JIM HALL: I think it's extremely important. I think that through encryption and other ways, we can deal with those issues, but I think we shouldn't see situations as we have seen in two or three investigations, where there are things that could be easily answered by a video camera in the cockpit that is restricted again just for those events when there has been a fatal accident.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you come away from this feeling better about flying, about the safety of aviation, or worse?
JIM HALL: Well, i feel much... I guess i feel better about aviation safety, because I know how hard all of us work. And when i say all of us, I'm talking, i'm including the industry, the FAA, the government regulators. I only wish that the type of effort that goes into aviation safety went into highway safety, and then we wouldn't lose 40,000 people annually on our highways, and we wouldn't have, as we did in the decade of the 1990s, 90,000 young people, age 20 and under, dying on our highways, nine million injured. I don't feel good about that. I do feel good about the efforts that are made each and every day in aviation safety.
TERENCE SMITH: That is great. Jim Hall, thank you very much and good luck.
JIM HALL: Thank you very much. And thank you for y'all's responsible attention on the investigations that have been conducted under my watch.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay.