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NBAA Interview With NTSB Member Deborah A.P. Hersman

Deborah A.P. Hersman was sworn in as the 35th member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on June 21, 2004. Since her appointment to the board, Hersman has been the member on scene at more than a dozen major transportation accidents, including several high-profile business jet mishaps. Before joining the NTSB, Hersman was a senior professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation from 1999 to 2004, where she was responsible for the legislative agenda and policy initiatives affecting surface transportation issues. Prior to that appointment, she served as staff director and senior legislative aide to Representative Bob Wise (D-WV-2) from 1992 to 1999.

Business aviation’s commitment to safety is demonstrated annually by safety records that are often equal to or better than those of the scheduled airlines. Looking at reduced budgets facing every business sector, where could companies benefit the most from their investment in safety?

For the NTSB, we have long looked at training as a very good investment. You have expensive equipment, and you want to make sure your pilots are trained properly. Recurrent training in a simulator gives pilots the chance to experience different kinds of unusual and dangerous situations, like icing or stalls. For operators whose fleets are equipped with flight data and cockpit voice recorders, even low-cost recorders, a program like FOQA [Flight Operational Quality Assurance] offers a relatively low-cost way to enhance safety. Especially during tight financial times, it’s important to keep in mind that in aviation safety, it’s important not to be penny-wise. Too often, short-term cost cutting ends up being very expensive in the long run.

Safety data monitoring appears to be paying dividends. Trends that were previously impossible to detect are now regularly found before problems arise. What trends does the NTSB see emerging from the use of data as a safety tool?

While we are still early in our experience of gathering and monitoring data, we are far beyond where we were five years ago when we started the process. The tricky part of data monitoring to detect trends is that we only measure things we know to measure. We often don’t accurately predict what the problems will be in the next year or next decade. We often have the appropriate accident data, but are missing the exposure data. It’s critical to have both the numerator and the denominator to fully understand what the data is telling us. Having a good, global base of data means that we need to look at and record not only what is going wrong, but also what is going right.

NBAA has endorsed and supported the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO). This business aviation standard offers companies a starting point for developing their own tailored safety management system (SMS). How could the NTSB give additional visibility to this internationally recognized standard?

In January, the board examined the probable cause of the crash of the NASCAR business jet in Sanford, FL in July 2007. Based on actions by the company’s flight department prior to the accident, the board voted to recommend that the FAA advise all business operators about the value of implementing an SMS. A good SMS provides a number of benefits for a business operator, such as having an effective way to monitor before there is a system failure, as well as decision-making processes based on structured risk management, and promoting safety as an organizational core value. Achieving a safety culture is more complex than simply reducing the number of accidents. A company can use its SMS to systematically promote safety at all levels by setting goals and establishing accountability.