Aviation’s Iron Lady: NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman

Juggling Boeing’s meltdown and bureaucratic tension with the much larger FAA, top federal transportation investigator Deborah Hersman is the steely new face of sky patrol.

01.28.13 5:10 PM ET

There’s a new, tough energy in the nation’s leading accident investigation agency, and its face is Deborah Hersman.

Aviation industry insiders have been surprised by the bluntness of public statements made by Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, about the investigation into battery fires on board the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

“I’m glad to see her taking the lead,” says John Goglia, a former NTSB investigator with more than 40 years experience in the industry. “These are not state secrets, this is an issue of public safety and they should be giving regular updates.”

From the moment when NTSB inspectors arrived in Boston in the wake of a battery fire on a Japan Airlines 787 two weeks ago, the agency has stressed the seriousness of the problem and made very explicit the hazard it represents.

Last week at the NTSB headquarters in Washington, Hersman opened the lab to reporters to display the charred remnants of the battery and its casing, an unusually vivid public move. And, as she has all along, she emphasized—three times—that any potential source of fire aboard an airplane cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps more significantly, Hersman is directing the NTSB investigation to look into the role of its far larger fellow agency, the Federal Aviation Administration. Specifically, into how the whole 787 battery system came to be certified safe to fly by the FAA.

There has always been a tension between the two agencies. The NTSB’s role is investigation and recommendation—spelling out a safety problem that they have identified and recommending the steps, including new regulations, needed to put it right. The FAA is charged with framing the consequent regulations, which can be a long and opaque process vulnerable to both industry interests and politicians.

The FAA has a headquarters staff of 4,000 and another 40,000 in regional offices and in the field; the NTSB has to deal with all transportation investigations with a staff of only 400. Around 60 investigators handle aviation.

The contention between the two took a strange turn in the last decade. The FAA decided to build their own laboratory to analyze data from flight recorders, duplicating equipment that the NTSB—in a building directly opposite—already had. “This was a terrible waste of taxpayer money,” Goglia says. “If they had something they wanted to read out they could just step across the street.”

With the 787 investigation, Hersman and her investigators are caught between Boeing on one side, with a shadow lengthening over its reputation and anxious to get the Dreamliner back in the air, and the FAA on the other, who have to make the call that it is safe to fly. Traditionally, the FAA has been tight-lipped about its relations with airplane manufacturers during accident investigations.

Hersman’s no-nonsense statements and transparency have made the FAA, and its new chief Mike Huerta (he had barely taken charge when the crisis erupted), appear to be behind the curve. It took the FAA four day after the Boston fire to decide to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the 787’s systems and another five days—after a battery emergency on an All Nippon Airways 787 that was in the air—to ground the airplanes.

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Hersman was only 39 when President Obama nominated her to head the agency. For 12 years she had been a staffer on Capitol Hill specializing in transportation safety. An early fan of hers was Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees the NTSB, who predicted that running the agency was “her destiny.” 

And it is now Rockefeller’s committee that is investigating the FAA’s certification of the 787’s battery system and considering a step that would open up the issue to new scrutiny—public hearings. When Rockefeller was first briefed on the problem, he was forthright: “How could something like that by a company like Boeing, how could it just be so bad?”

Shortly after Hersman took over the agency, her concern with airline safety was sharpened by what her investigators uncovered after the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo in February 2009, which killed 50 people. The crash was a result of pilot error, involving a captain who had failed competency tests and a 24-year-old copilot, Rebecca Shaw, who earned $23,900 a year and who, before joining Flight 3407, had slept in a crew lounge after hitching two Fedex flights to Newark from her home in Seattle.

The NTSB recommended far more stringent rules to prevent pilot fatigue and last year, after typically drawn-out FAA consultations, new regulations governing pilot duty hours and rest periods were finally passed.

Hersman is now setting her sights on private aviation, where the safety record contrasts poorly with commercial airlines—Hersman has cited last year’s numbers, 1,500 accidents with 400 deaths, as a cause of concern.

In the case of the 787, the NTSB gave an update yesterday which revealed that they have sent two more investigators to the Boeing plant in Seattle, one of whom who will focus on the battery certification process.

Goglia believes that the forensic trail could extend beyond the batteries and the systems designed to monitor them into the software involved, and that outside experts may need to be brought in.  “It was routine to reach out to the academic community and bring in that expertise. If we don’t have a smoking gun pretty quickly this airplane is going to be on the ground for quite a while.”