Participating in Accident Investigations
Although Boeing's safety efforts primarily focus on preventing accidents from occurring in the first place, a great deal of effort goes into supporting accident investigations to ensure that the same kind of accident does not recur.
Accidents rarely result from a single failure or action. They result from a combination of things -- for example, an error in maintenance that causes a failure in flight that a member of the flight crew then responds to incorrectly.
In other words, accidents result from a chain of events that make them difficult to analyze but also provide multiple opportunities to prevent them. Remove any link in the chain and the accident can be avoided.
Industry and government safety experts study accidents to identify these chains of events as well as "intervention strategies" for preventing the same kinds of accidents in the future.
The strategies include new training aids for flight crews and mechanics, new operating procedures, infrastructure improvements, aircraft design modifications, and incorporation of new technologies into the aviation system.
Working together, industry and government safety officials have been able to virtually eliminate some of the most common accident causes of the past and are confident they'll be able to do the same with the most common accidents still occurring.
What Happens When an Accident Occurs?
The airport operator will handle fire fighting and rescue operations if the accident is at or near the airport.
If not near an airport, local police and fire fighters quickly take control of the site to facilitate search and rescue and to protect important evidence.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (if the event occurs in the United States), or the government with jurisdiction over the area, is immediately notified.
The affected airline is the responsible source of information about the passengers and crew on board. It will not identify victims prior to notifying next of kin. The airline typically will conduct media briefings from both the accident site and its headquarters.
The airplane manufacturer and engine manufacturer will be involved in the accident investigation, if called upon by the government agency leading the investigation.
How Accidents are Investigated
By international convention, accidents are investigated by the government with jurisdiction over the area where the event occurs.
At the invitation of the investigative agencies, other representatives - usually the aircraft and engine manufacturers, the operator and other appropriate parties - provide technical expertise to the investigation.
The government agency leading the investigation, however, retains full control over the investigation, including communication with all stakeholders and the public. It oversees all testing and analysis of wreckage and is solely responsible for determining the cause and contributing factors.
However, in many instances, the government with legal jurisdiction asks the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to help or even lead the investigation on its behalf.
Governments do so because of the NTSB's experience and expertise, which is recognized the world over.
When an accident occurs, the NTSB (or its foreign equivalent) dispatches a "go team" to the site.
Always important to an investigation are the "black boxes" -- the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which are encased in steel boxes located in the tail of every airplane and capable of withstanding great pressure and temperature extremes. Radar tapes also can be valuable sources of information to accident investigators.
While the initial field phase of an accident investigation can be concluded within weeks or even days, the investigators' final report and recommendations often take years to complete.
Sometimes the investigative agency holds a public hearing, with witnesses, to gather additional information and opinions about what the evidence shows.
NTSB investigations conclude with a "sunshine meeting" in Washington, D.C., at which the board votes on the official findings of fact and probable cause.
Its final report also includes recommendations to the parties, many of which are implemented, often before the investigation is complete.
A Word About Accident Statistics
Boeing is committed to its role in helping all stakeholders understand the data associated with airplane accidents.
That is why since the 1960s Boeing has published the Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents. The annual report has become the definitive source of air accident information for the aviation industry.
By understanding what the data is telling us, we, as industry, can take meaningful steps toward enhancing the safety of the air transportation system.
Comparing the Risk in the U.S.
In the United States, it's approximately 70 times safer flying in a commercial jet than traveling by personal vehicle*, according to a 1997 - 2006 study by the U.S. National Safety Council. The study compares accident fatalities per million passenger-miles traveled. In fact, the number of U.S. highway deaths in personal vehicles* in a typical year is greater than all commercial jet fatalities worldwide since the dawn of jet aviation five decades ago.
*Personal vehicles refers to passenger automobiles, vans, sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks