Published November 25, 2010
PHOENIX - The National Transportation Safety Board issued significantly fewer recommendations for improvements in the last decade than in any other time in its 36-year history.
A News21-Center for Public Integrity analysis of NTSB data shows that for most of its history, the board has been fairly consistent, issuing an average of 300 to 450 safety recommendations a year.
But after President George W. Bush took office in 2000, the agency's activity dropped to the lowest level since its establishment in 1974.
In 2001, the NTSB issued 175 recommendations, down from 268 in the previous year, a 35 percent decline. In 2005, the board issued just 110 recommendations.
Over the eight years of the Bush administration, the NTSB averaged only 155 recommendations a year. That's less than half of both the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan (445) and George H.W. Bush (417) and the Democratic administrations of Jimmy Carter (384) and Bill Clinton (329).
In 2009, under President Obama, the NTSB issued 240 recommendations, more than in any year of the Bush administration but still lower than past Democratic and Republic administrations.
Some former board members say the decline of NTSB investigations in the Bush administration can be attributed in part to several major aviation accidents in the late 1990s, including the crashes of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 and Egyptair Flight 990 in 1999, which consumed the board well into the next decade.
But critics suggest politics took hold.
Presidents, who nominate board members for five-year terms, can have three members from their own party, but the other two board members must be from the opposition party. One member -- always of the same political affiliation as the president -- is separately nominated and confirmed as chairman to serve for two years.
The chairman has no power over the other board members, and his or her vote holds no greater weight than anyone else's. But the chairman does have the responsibility of overseeing the agency's finances and guiding its staff as they pursue investigations.
NTSB staff and board members have no obligations to Congress or other government agencies. The chairman reports directly to the White House.
"That independence that the board has is pretty jealously guarded, but you can break it down," said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member and now an aviation safety consultant. "The chairman can break that down because the chairman talks to the White House all the time."
Fans of current board chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, who was appointed head of NTSB in July 2009, say they are encouraged by what they've seen from her so far. Appointed to the board in 2004, Hersman last year chastised the Washington, D.C., Metro system following the deadly Metro crash, saying it had not paid enough attention to safety.
"Deborah is more in the mold of the board is there to make a difference," Democratic board members Carol Carmody said, "and I think she'll see that it does."
Carmody and Goglia are two NTSB members who faulted the leadership style of Ellen Engleman Conners, who was chairwoman of the board from 2003 to 2005, for the decline in investigations during the Bush administration.
Engleman Conners required all board votes be unanimous, something that had never been common practice, they said. She also was very frugal, which former Democratic board members say was problematic to the conduct of investigations.
"You couldn't buy anything without her signature," said John Goglia,
Engleman Conners, who resigned in May 2006 after withdrawing her re-nomination as chairwoman in December 2005, now works for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She declined repeated requests for an interview.
Carmody said other chairmen under Bush -- Marion Blakey and Mark Rosenker -- also were far less aggressive than past chairmen.
"Neither of them was interested in shaking up or irritating or being too aggressive with the regulators," Carmody said. "They certainly were interested in safety, but they were usually looking for ways to work things out, to compromise and see if they couldn't sit around the table and work things out."
Rosenkar said his interactions with regulators were aimed at looking for solutions.
"My style was never to get in there and start beating people with a big bat. ... I always believed we were partners in the process, never to a point where we were what I would call cozy ... but we're all trying to do the right thing,' he said.
Rosenker said politics had nothing to do with the number of NTSB recommendations issued while he was chairman from 2006 to 2009. He said the number is far more influenced by career staffers who complete and write recommendations than by board members who only vote on them.
"For the most part, even though we were appointed by either a Democratic president or a Republican president, the business of what the board is is not political. It's safety," he said. "I may disagree with my colleagues, but it's normally on the merits rather than on the politics of something."
Blakey, now president of Aerospace Industries Association, a lobbying group for the nation's largest aviation manufacturers, declined to be interviewed.
Doug Rabe, a former NTSB official who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, said the NTSB in general is still much less adversarial than it used to be.
"In the 1990s, NTSB was out to be in the headlines. And you know what? They were in the headlines because they went on scene, made a splash with the press," he said. The last decade, he said, has "very much been cooperative."
News21 reporters Jennifer Brookland and Richie Duchon contributed to this story.News21 is a cooperative project among 12 universities, including the University of Maryland's Capital News Service. It is funded by the Carnegie Corp. and Knight Foundation.