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On Keeping Your Mouth Shut: Discussing Aircraft Accidents in Public

from RISKS-18
edited by Peter B. Ladkin

When an aircraft crashes, lives are lost and relatives suffer. Furthermore, not everyone with an interest can tell who is an expert and who is not, and technical chatter can turn into rumor which can seriously mislead. Many experts don't pronounce on a topic until they are 100% sure that what they assert will not need to be revised. However, speculation and discussion is a path to knowledge that those very experts have followed to reach their certainty. How to reconcile the desire for certainty with the thirst for knowledge? An old problem, and one with very human consequences.

On 9 September, Dick Mills published a suggestion in RISKS-18.42 that discussion of aircraft accidents in forums such as RISKS should be voluntarily curtailed until the final report on the accident is published. He was concerned about the spread of disinformation were public speculation amongst cognoscenti to be taken as fact by others, and about the emotional discomfort that this might cause to those who suffer the consequences of accidents. Robert Dorsett, in his reply in RISKS-18.43, gave various examples in which timely public discussion of accidents, even when not entirely accurate, had nevertheless been beneficial. Peter Ladkin acknowledged the problems of disinformation, but listed six reasons in RISKS-18.44 why he thought that Mill's proposed solution would hinder rather than help discussion.

Mills restated his case in RISKS-18.45, in particular deploring (and refuting) that broadly political considerations should play a role in aviation accident investigation. (I didn't note in his reply any specific answers to the points I had made in Risks-18.44.)

Mills claimed that aircraft accidents were a particularly sensitive public issue, and therefore deserved especially sensitive treatment. Clive Feather noted that the Mills' reasoning would entail that other risks such as railway accidents also deserve sensitive treatment, and Peter Neumann extended this inference to "almost everything that RISKS has tried to do for the last 11+ years". Mark Jackson pointed out that the Columbia Journalism Review is running a reprint of a 1990 article The Accidental Journalist by William Boot, on the difficulties of reporting commercial aircraft accidents. The New Yorker has also recently run an article (1) on the investigation of the crash of US427 near Pittsburgh in 1994.

Dorsett, in his second reply to Mills in RISKS-18.45, noted that government agencies themselves have charters and goals which may sometimes come into conflict with some of the broader goals of public discussion of accidents, and therefore that to lock out such discussion of public events was to adversely affect the normal political restraints (the `checks and balances', one might say) on these agencies. He cites examples in which individuals who would not normally be party to an investigation intervened beneficially. He cites a book on the ATR72 and the history of its behavior in icing conditions.

Steven Philipson concurs in RISKS-18.51 that public safety has a strong political element, and relates a case in which he has been personally involved, in which specific pilot and controller training would avoid repeat accidents. He and his colleagues have not yet succeeded as they wished to obtain general recognition of the problem and its solution from the FAA. He supposes that were a high-profile accident to occur, the solution would swiftly be implemented. And he concludes from this instance that how seriously a problem is taken is a question of political judgement (in the broad sense) and not just of technical judgement.


(1): Jonathan Harr, The Crash Detectives, The New Yorker, AUgust 5, 1996, 34-53. Back