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Priorities in NTSB Investigations

The National Transportation Safety Board lists general aviation among its top ten advocacy priorities in 2014. According to the NTSB, general aviation accidents make up the vast majority of aviation-related deaths in the U.S. The NTSB has been charged with conducting investigations into aviation accidents for nearly 50 years and has conducted numerous safety studies to improve aviation safety. Not all aviation incidents are treated equally, however. An analysis conducted by USA Today shows that aviation accidents involving prominent, politically-connected people or celebrities receive substantially more attention from NTSB investigators than other crashes.

A spokesperson for the NTSB acknowledged that certain high-profile incidents are assigned a larger initial team. The stated reason is that the increase in public interest necessitates a faster dissemination of information about the crash. One NTSB manual instructs officials to consider the number of people killed or injured as well as their prominence in deciding how many people to send to investigate. Noteworthy crashes that received heightened attention include the aviation accidents that claimed the lives of John F. Kennedy Jr., John Denver and Mel Carnahan, the Governor of Missouri who died in a crash during his campaign for U.S. Senate in 2000. 

The NTSB spokesperson also pointed out that prominent crashes offer the chance to push safety recommendations. The NTSB has no authority to regulate general aviation or other modes of transportation. It makes recommendations to promote safety, but relies on the legislative process to actually regulate the industry. The NTSB employs roughly 90 investigators and must decide how to deploy those investigators to best serve its safety mission.

Source: USA Today, “Celebrity plane crashes draw special scrutiny from the NTSB,” by Thomas Frank, 4 December 2014 

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