NTSB Asks for Funding & Personnel Increases, Expanded & Clarified Authorities at House Hearing
April 8, 2022|Jeff Davis
This week, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board came to Capitol Hill to give an update on the NTSB’s current status and explore the independent agency’s needs and plans for the future.
The April 6 hearing of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was chaired by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who managed to make more news with a non-NTSB-related line in his opening statement than anyone else made during the actual hearing. On March 24, the Seattle Times revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration had recently warned Boeing that the manufacturer might miss the December 27, 2022 deadline for the grace period for certifying the new 737 MAX 10 without a “flight crew alerting system that, at a minimum, displays and differentiates among warnings, cautions, and advisories, and includes functions to assist the flight crew in prioritizing corrective actions and responding to systems failures.” (Sec. 116 of Division V of Public Law 116-260.) If Boeing misses the deadline, they have to take the MAX 10 back to the drawing board and incorporate such a system. That deadline is set by law, and only Congress can waive or change it.
This is relevant because, in his opening statement at the NTSB hearing, chairman DeFazio said “that grace period should not be extended.” His Senate counterpart, Commerce, Science, and Transportation chairman Maria Cantwell (D-WA), had spoken more favorably about possibly granting Boeing an extension, but Boeing and its workers are located in Cantwell’s state, not DeFazio’s.
Regarding actual NTSB issues, Homendy proved to be a capable and well-prepared nominee (which makes sense, since she worked for the T&I Committee for years, sitting on the other side of the dais, and planning questions for witnesses). In her opening testimony, she tried to tell the story of a small, hard-working team of experts doing a difficult job with few resources.
The last time the NTSB was reauthorized was in 2018, as Division D of the multi-year FAA reauthorization act enacted that year. That law authorized appropriations for the FAA through fiscal year 2023, but only authorized the NTSB through the end of fiscal 2022, so the agency has no target budget set in law for the upcoming year.
Before the hearing, Homendy’s team sent the committee a draft reauthorization proposal that goes along with the budget request for the agency just submitted for 2023.
NHTSA’s budget request for 2023 asks for an increase of $7.9 million, or 6.5 percent, over the fiscal 2022 enacted appropriation ($129.3 million versus $121.4 million). Beyond that, the proposed authorization bill shows their intent to request significant additional funding growth in future years (OMB permitting):
The funding increases would make up for two decades of stagnation on the personnel side and seven years of near-flat budgets from 2015-2021 (the appropriations, on the left axis, are in millions of dollars):
Homendy gave an example in response to a question from DeFazio about why it has been taking NTSB longer and longer to complete after-accident reports – she said that in 2013, NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety had 137 personnel, and when she took over last year, that number had dropped to 108. She said if the NTSB were allowed to hire everyone it needs to operate at 100 percent peak efficiency, that would be a total of around 600 FTEs (not the 400 they have been stuck at), and a total budget of around $250 million per year (not their recent $110-120 million per year).
The draft reauthorization bill submitted by NTSB to Congress makes the funding increase requests listed above, and proposes a host of personnel-related changes that are part of the overall plan to spend that additional money. Also, there are some proposed changes to NTSB’s authorities:
- More, better highway investigations. At present, the law lets NTSB investigate highway accidents “in cooperation with a State.” The explanatory document for the draft bill says that this language led to problems when investigating the 2018 New York limousine crash, where the New York D.A. decided that the word “cooperation” “implied that NTSB’s safety investigations were secondary to a state’s criminal investigation, and therefore the State could restrict NTSB’s access to the evidence.” NTSB had to sue New York to get the evidence, and so they are proposing to change the language so it reads that NTSB can investigate a highway crash “concurrent with any State investigation.”
- Fewer rail investigations. In a country with almost 140,000 miles of active railroad tracks, some of which goes right through downtown urban areas, if a person really wants to commit suicide by lying down in front of a train, they will probably be successful, and any government rule that could make a dent in this problem could not come close to being cost-effective. In acknowledgement of that, the draft NTSB reauthorization bill would relieve the Board from having to account for all trespasser-related rail fatalities each year in order to, in the words of the summary document, “focus the NTSB’s mandate and resources in investigating rail accidents for which there are safety benefits.”
- Better black box access. The draft bill requirers manufacturers of “black box” data and voice recorders to give immediate assistance to the NTSB when trying to retrieve data from the recorders during accident investigations, whether or not proprietary intellectual property is revealed by that assistance.
- Penalties for rail accidents. Current law gives NTSB the authority to levy civil penalties of up to $1,000 per day for interfering in an accident investigation or post-accident family assistance activity, or, for aircraft accidents, for making unsolicited legal settlement offers to victims within 45 days or the accident or failing. The draft bill would extend the penalty-levying authority to rail accidents for purposes of interfering with post-accident family assistance or making unsolicited legal offers within 45 days.
- Bring back the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is responsible for setting many maritime safety standards. However, when the Guard was removed from DOT and transferred to the new Homeland Security Department in 2003, no one updated the NTSB statute, and the Coast Guard no longer had to give annual updates of the status of NTSB Most Wanted recommendations (that was the Secretary of Transportation’s job, and he no longer had access to Coast Guard workings). The draft bill would require the Commandant of the Coast Guard to make an annual Most Wanted status report for NTSB maritime safety recommendations.
Questions at the hearing ranged from the general (a briefing on the progress of the China Eastern crash – Homendy said that the NTSB’s relationship with the Chinese investigating authority was excellent, but did not give any update as to how long before info from the recorders would become available) to the hyper-specific (Garrett Graves (R-LA), the subcommittee ranking member, asked how many drones the NTSB operated and whether they were made in China, and Homendy immediately responded that they owned 7, all Chinese-made and all predating the ban on Chinese-made UAS, but that they are in the progress of replacing of those with non-PRC manufacture).
Since the larger FAA reauthorization bill won’t be written until next year, any NTSB reauthorization bill that moves on-time this year will have to move on its own, or piggyback on some larger piece of legislation. The only one of those that may move later this year is the defense authorization bill.
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