More leaders should be like straight-talking NTSB chief

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When a Chicago Transit Authority Yellow Line train hit a snow-removal train in October, injuring 38 people, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. was conspicuous mostly by his absence. Even now, he has said relatively little about the incident and its potential impact on the rest of the system. But there was a reassuring presence at the podium in Chicago from Day One: Jennifer Homendy, the frank, honest and impressive head of the federal government’s National Transportation Safety Board.
Homendy’s job is to rush to the scenes of serious transportation-related accidents with her staffers and find out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. She benefits from the specific nature of her mission: Her one agenda is safety and the prevention of recurrence, and she does not have to worry about deflecting blame or minimizing legal or political liability.
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Nonetheless, the job has a big systemic challenge. On the one hand, the NTSB requires time to complete a thorough investigation of accidents that can have multiple causes, which can take many months. On the other hand, if there’s a big problem, everyone needs to know about that as fast as possible.
It took all of 48 hours for Homendy’s crew to determine that the issue with the Yellow Line was braking distance. “The braking distance should’ve been longer,” Homendy said on the Saturday following the Thursday crash. “They should have had 2,745 feet to stop that train; 2,745, not 1,780 feet. That is a design problem.”
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At the same news conference, though, Homendy was asked about the general safety of taking the CTA by a local TV reporter. Her answer? Trains are much safer than driving a car and nothing in this incident changed that equation. “I would take the train tonight, tomorrow,” Homendy said. “I have no safety concerns about taking the train.”
In the last couple of days, Homendy was back at her podium again, this time after part of the fuselage fell off a Boeing 737 Max 9 jet operated by Alaska Airlines. The piece of the plane, which turned out to be a door plug, whooshed off into the atmosphere at 16,000 feet, terrifying passengers. Remarkably, no one was sitting in 26A or 26B, the seats next to the panel that fell off the plane over Oregon, a fluke that could well have saved lives, given the perilous physics of planes flying with a depressurized cabin and a hole in the middle.
All plane incidents are serious, of course, but this one was especially easy to visualize. The part of the plane that fell off was a piece of hardware that covered the emergency exit available to airlines that prefer a denser seating plan and thus have different compliance requirements. Alaska (and United, among other airlines) have fewer seats in that plane and don’t need the exit.
The plug is not so different from plugs that exist in automobiles where the buyer has not bought the higher trim level and the feature is missing. But manufacturers use a common shell and thus plugs are a reality of modern mass production, even including planes.
It goes without saying that airline users have a right to expect any “plug” to have the same structural integrity as the rest of the fuselage. And the news that this one appears not to have been bolted in correctly is troubling, especially given the troubled history of Boeing’s Max program.
We were glad to see Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun take responsibility and tell both his staffers and the public that he is determined to work with the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure such an incident “can never happen again.” Calhoun also said Tuesday: “We’re going to approach this, No. 1, acknowledging our mistake. We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way.”
Perhaps back in Chicago Carter was listening. We doubt it. Since taking over at the CTA nearly nine years ago, Carter has been practically invisible to the public.
But we bet Homendy heard every word and plans to figure out how to make sure that Boeing plugs stay plugged for good.
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Already, the door has been found in someone’s backyard and Homendy, straight-talking as ever, has homed in on the likely cause (the aforementioned bolts). At the time of writing, the main issue appears to be whether those fasteners were too loose or not present at all, meaning the plug really was plugged, or not so plugged, on a wing and a prayer.
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“We don’t know if there were bolts there, or if they are just missing and departed when the door plug departed … during the violent explosive decompression,” Homendy said, not waiting for any final anything. But we bet she and her crew will figure that out.
So far with the Max 9 incident, Homendy has used her bully pulpit to remind everyone of how traumatic it was for the crew and passengers on that flight. She clearly sees it as her job to counter any vested interest who tries to minimize what it’s like to fear for your life, even if you are wearing a uniform. And she has used this chance to push for the end of flight recorders that automatically erase what has gone before after just an hour or two, as if we were still living in the analog era. Longer recordings of flights are a no-brainer, and the FAA should move on this immediately.
But as with the CTA, Homendy also was asked by a CNN reporter if people should be afraid of flying on a Boeing, an absurd question given the huge variety of aircraft the company manufactures and the varying age of planes flying. You could see a flash of irritation on the face of the NTSB head. But she composed herself fast. Families getting in cars instead of flying is not what she wanted, from a safety point of view. We’re all safer in the air, or on the trains, than on the roads.
“We have the safest aviation system in the world. It is incredibly safe,” she said. “We are the global gold standard for safety around the world. But we have to maintain that standard.”
Exactly. What other federal office might this impressive woman run when she’s done with the NTSB?
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