Guidance on Company Response to an Aviation Accident
NBAA has provided the following information and guidance for company management and public affairs personnel to help them respond to press and public inquiries in the event of an accident involving company-operated aircraft. A list of specific press concerns is also provided to help company personnel effectively prepare for and respond to inquiries.
Issues related to aircraft accidents may be discussed at any time with the staff of the following organizations:
Aircraft accidents are complex and unfortunate events that require a deft personal and corporate response. A company’s first and highest responsibility is to the families of those involved in the accident. Every appropriate provision for their comfort and accommodation should be considered, assigned and acted upon first, prior to internal company or public comment. Company management should take steps immediately to notify the families, offer counseling and other support, make needed arrangements and keep them informed.
The primary sources for information regarding the aircraft, crew and passengers involved typically are internal and can be obtained from sources such as flight department records, flight department personnel not involved in the accident, company human resource departments or personnel departments. The leadership of those departments should be contacted at the outset. Legal counsel, public affairs and investor-relations personnel, and insurance providers also should be contacted immediately.
Aircraft accidents often generate acute levels of public and professional scrutiny previously not experienced by management, in an area outside their expertise. Although this attention typically is long-term as an investigation unfolds, the broader public’s interest usually is ephemeral. The early acknowledgment of and stated regret for an obvious tragedy, responsibility for the families of those involved in the accident, and a demonstrable corporate attitude of proactive cooperation with investigating authorities are highly recommended. The public’s perception of a company’s professionalism in the wake of a crisis often significantly influences public and shareholder opinion of the company’s competency.
Ultimately, safety is the responsibility of company management, from the CEO down, and it should be treated as a fundamental matter of the company culture. Management should articulate in writing a strong, permanent and visible commitment to safety. Past aircraft accident investigators have noted that the implementation of corporate safety standards for air transportation often effectively prevent most accidents before they occur.
In the event an accident does occur, company management should have procedures in place to help them respond to the crisis quickly and effectively. The following sections recommend specific actions that company representatives should (or should not) take in the aftermath of an aircraft accident. They also identify the facts company representatives should know about the accident and about business aviation in general in order for them to answer likely press and public inquiries successfully.
While this NBAA guidance addresses accidents from company management’s perspective, flight departments also should proactively develop a more detailed emergency response program. Operators should periodically exercise their program to ensure that the content it contains remains current and personnel have a recent familiarity with their roles and responsibilities as outlined in the program to be ready to respond to a crisis quickly and effectively.
NBAA welcomes feedback from companies, agencies and other sources so that it can continue to improve this guidance. Contact NBAA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Company Response in the Aftermath of an Accident
After an aircraft accident has occurred, company management and public affairs personnel must deal with several issues. As noted above, a company’s first step always should be to fully accommodate the family members of those involved in the accident. Next, company personnel should be prepared to answer questions posed by aviation authorities, the media and the general public related to the trip’s purpose and itinerary, the aircraft involved and other related factors. The type of data most frequently requested by authorities is identified below; companies should have such information on hand as an investigation unfolds. Please note, however, that companies should not answer certain questions posed by the media but instead refer them to outside authorities.
Accommodation of Family Members
Never forget that a company’s first and highest responsibility is to the families of those involved in the accident. A company should anticipate and answer their needs first, prior to internal company or public comment. Company management should take steps immediately to notify the families, offer counseling and other support, make any necessary arrangements and keep them informed. To keep families informed, the company should assign each of them a liaison in a long-term role.
Notification of Company Personnel
Company leadership and legal counsel as well as human resources, flight department, public affairs, investor relations and press relations personnel should be notified of an accident as soon as possible following the incident. After such notification and by prior arrangement, further management of this issue would then be assigned to a response team of the company’s design. Only one specifically assigned response team member should communicate with the media regarding the accident. This “sole source” media contact should be identified company-wide, reducing the likelihood of uninformed commentary.
Notification of Insurance Providers
The company’s insurance carrier should be contacted as soon as possible after an accident. Additionally, since some insurance providers have their own accident response procedures, company personnel should request such information from the provider and use it in conjunction with this memo.
Notification of the National Transportation Safety Board
Federal regulations require operators to notify the NTSB immediately of aviation accidents and certain incidents. An accident is defined as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft that takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have disembarked, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage. An incident is an occurrence other than an accident that affects or could affect the safety of operations.
Contact the NTSB Response Operations Center (ROC) at 844-373-9922 or 202-314-6290 to file a report. A phone call is sufficient initially, but a written follow-up may be required.
NTSB Notification and Reporting of Aircraft Accidents or Incidents and Overdue Aircraft, and Preservation of Aircraft Wreckage, Mail, Cargo and Records requirements are contained in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 49, Chapter VIII, Part 830.
The NTSB’s aviation accident/incident reporting requirements page includes full details on the reporting requirements process.
Probable Cause of an Accident
Do not speculate about the cause of any accident at any time. Company personnel should make no comment regarding the “probable cause” of an accident. Moreover, not only should companies not comment on the probable cause, but they should not comment on the investigation at all, i.e., what was or was not found.
By federal statute, the jurisdiction of investigation and the finding of probable cause for accidents involving aircraft of U.S. registry is the responsibility of the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency of the federal government headquartered in Washington, DC, with four regional offices located throughout the United States. Company management should refer all inquiries regarding the probable cause of an accident to the Office of Public Affairs at the NTSB at 202-314-6100.
Accidents involving loss of life often will involve the dispatch of an NTSB “Go Team,” which will travel rapidly to the site to direct the accident investigation. Aside from immediate public safety concerns at the crash site, the NTSB alone has the jurisdiction and authority to command an accident investigation and issue a probable cause finding. No other agency or authority – federal, state, municipal or local – should or can comment responsibly on the probable cause of an accident.
For accidents that the Board investigates, all questions regarding the aircraft and its contents, crew, passengers, air traffic control personnel, local weather conditions at the time of the accident, or any additional issues relevant to an accident eventually will be commented upon officially by the NTSB.
At the Board’s discretion, some accidents involving only property damage will not have an NTSB investigator travel to the accident scene. Although FAA investigators may go to the accident site, these accident investigations are still under the oversight of the NTSB and, therefore, questions concerning these accidents should be directed to the appropriate NTSB regional office.
No company personnel should comment on the probable cause of an aircraft accident for several reasons. First, the jurisdiction for determining probable cause is the NTSB’s alone. Second, speculation may adversely affect a company’s legal liability with regard to the accident. Third, accidents typically are complex events not completely understood until after at least several months of analysis are completed, if then. Company personnel rarely are qualified accident investigators, a unique specialization. Consequently, initial comments and conclusions by accident observers frequently are in error, typically confusing the issue or worse.
NTSB Investigation Party System
The NTSB investigates about 2,000 aviation accidents and incidents a year. With about 400 employees, the Board accomplishes this task by leveraging its resources and designating other organizations or corporations as parties to the investigation that can provide the NTSB with needed technical or specialized operational expertise. Other parties typically include the FAA (required by law), airframe manufacturer, powerplant manufacturer, accident/incident aircraft operator, and the pilots union of the operator, as applicable.
Should a business aviation operator have an aircraft accident/incident that triggers an NTSB investigation, NBAA encourages the operator to participate as a party to the NTSB investigation. This brings the business aircraft operator’s direct expertise and perspective to the process. The NTSB has complete discretion over which organizations it designates as parties to an investigation and the individuals designated as party representatives from those organizations. Persons in legal or litigation positions are not allowed to be assigned to an investigation.
Update Organization’s Web Site
If the type of aircraft involved in the accident is available for sale via the organization’s website, any sale-related references should be removed from the site as soon as possible following the accident.
Scheduling Press Statements
Although the pressures for instant answers in the wake of an aviation accident can be extreme and from many quarters, accurate information seldom is available early or at the press’s convenience. Companies are cautioned to move as quickly as possible regarding the accommodation of family members, and as prudently as possible regarding the press. Respect for reporter deadlines must be tempered by consideration for the families and the ability of the company to respond professionally and with accuracy. When in doubt, and when possible, it is best to wait and schedule statements and meetings with reporters later rather than earlier.
If the NTSB is investigating the accident, companies should not speak about the accident investigation. However, companies can release factual information. The NTSB’s rule of thumb is that if you could have said it the day before the accident, you can say it the day after. Therefore, the Board permits, and actually would encourage, companies to release information concerning the aircraft, such as make, model, age and ownership; the identity of the company itself; the purpose of the flight; and the names of the crew and passengers (details about these categories are provided in later sections of this memo). Additionally, it would be helpful to the NTSB if the company’s public affairs personnel contacted the NTSB’s public affairs officers to notify them of any press statements.
Company management should be familiar with or know where to find information that relates to their aircraft, examples of which are listed and defined in the following section.
1. Type, Type Designation
Information regarding aircraft identification, including the name of the manufacturer and model number or name of the aircraft, should be contained within flight department or company administrative records. Typically, this information is reported using an official FAA “type designation” – a series of letters and numbers with which the FAA officially designates the aircraft type, such as “Dassault Falcon DA-20F” or “Learjet LR-25B.”
2. Acquisition Date
On what date did the company take control of the aircraft? Prior owners also can be relevant, if recent.
3. Engine Data
Engine information includes the number, identity of the manufacturer and model number of the aircraft’s engines. Such data often are reported separately and distinctly from the airframe’s identification. The number of hours in operation each engine has experienced may be reported. Also, the number of hours in operation since the last major overhaul or major service interval often is reported. All of this information may be available internally, through records kept by a company’s flight department. Alternately, if maintenance has been performed externally, the vendor for that service should have records including this and other information.
4. “Black Boxes”
Unlike commercial airliners, business aircraft typically are not required by Federal Aviation Regulation to use cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders, also known as black boxes. However, some business aircraft (typically sophisticated jets) do carry cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders onboard. If such is the case, company or manufacturer records will indicate their existence. This information is useful for response to press or other inquiries. However, company representatives should limit comments to whether the aircraft had black boxes or not; they should not comment on the recorded data.
All questions related to the expected performance of the aircraft should be referred to the aircraft’s manufacturer. Because accidents inherently call into question the performance of the aircraft – issues such as flight characteristics, fuel use, passenger and cargo loads, center of gravity concerns, etc., all can and will be raised – and because these issues often contribute to probable cause findings, companies should decline to speculate on the aircraft’s expected performance. All aircraft registered in the U.S. have been certified by the FAA and extensively tested to ensure their safe operation under conditions defined in the aircraft’s operating manual, a public document.
Performance specifications of the aircraft, as certified by the FAA, are available in the aircraft’s operating manual or from the aircraft’s manufacturer. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association, based in Washington, DC, can supply contact information for aircraft manufacturers. GAMA’s phone number is 202-393-1500.
6. Ownership and Management
The legal ownership of the aircraft usually is obvious. Under certain ownership options, however, ownership can be blurred. What entity holds legal title to the aircraft? Who is the “practical” owner/operator of the aircraft? Reporters typically will be uninterested in the legal nuances and will want to report the aircraft’s real-world operator.
Who has management control of the aircraft? Under certain ownership options, management of the aircraft can be outsourced to a management company, shared, or employ other resourcing strategies. Due to the often-complex nature of such ownership agreements, a company’s legal counsel or CFO typically is the most knowledgeable source of information regarding the ownership and management of company aircraft. However, information regarding aircraft operated by a third party, such as those operated by a management company or under a fractional ownership agreement, also can be secured through those companies.
The age of an aircraft refers to both how old the aircraft is in years and the amount of hours flown, also known as hours “on the airframe.” Takeoff and landing or start-up and shut-down “cycles” also sometimes are reported. This information typically is available from aircraft logbooks located in the company flight department’s or pilot’s office at the airport where the aircraft is based.
8. Maintenance Standards and FAA Inspections
It is important to note the maintenance philosophy of the company regarding the aircraft, which is typically stringent. To what standards or with what attitude was the aircraft maintained? Where was the aircraft maintained? If the aircraft was maintained in-house, what were the qualifications of the airframe and powerplant maintenance technicians? Additionally, information regarding the aircraft’s most recent FAA inspection should be available within the company’s flight department or through a maintenance vendor.
As part of its investigation, the NTSB will review the maintenance records of the accident aircraft. A proactive approach to maintenance, and the disclosure of maintenance records to authorities, is strongly recommended. However, public company comments regarding the maintenance of the accident aircraft should be extremely limited.
Because maintenance records typically are impounded rapidly following an accident, access to them can be limited to preexisting duplicates retained by some operators.
Trip Purpose & Itinerary
It usually is sufficient for a company to provide a general rather than a specific characterization of a trip’s purpose to the public. The flight’s expected departure/arrival dates and times, departure/destination locations and timing normally are reported following an accident.
Company management should keep information regarding an aircraft’s passengers on hand in the event of an accident. Such information includes names, titles, ages, professional biographies and names of family members.
Company management always should record information regarding an aircraft’s crew in the event of an accident. Such information includes the names and titles of pilot(s) and other onboard crew; qualifications of flightcrew members, including ratings held, hours of flight experience in aircraft involved and hours of flight experience in general; company training philosophy; and the safety record of company aircraft. Companies should expect and preempt aggressive efforts, including invasive inquiries to victims’ families, to secure photographs or “stories” about those involved in the accident.
Air Traffic Control
All questions concerning the NTSB’s investigation should be referred to the NTSB, including any questions about air traffic control. After an accident occurs, the NTSB will obtain air traffic control tapes pertaining to the accident from the FAA and examine them. When the NTSB returns air traffic control tapes to the FAA, typically a couple of weeks after the accident, the FAA will make the tapes public.
Company management should refer weather questions to the nearest airport’s management office or local weather authorities (the nearest National Weather Service office is a good source), which typically have access to local weather conditions.