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30 August 2013

Social media leads to friction between airlines NTSB and FAA

A Wall Street journal article from 26 August 2013 highlighted the increasingly role social media tools like Twitter are playing in recent airline accidents in the US, leading to some friction between airline officials, the NTSB, and the FAA. In the article, Tim Logan, the senior risk management official at Southwest Airlines, expressed frustrations that speed at which information is released after an accident has led to problems like a lack of coordination between the FAA and the NTSB during an accident investigation, specifically the 22 July 2013 Southwest landing accident in New York.

Logan is not the only airline industry voice with concerns about the speed of information flows to the public. On 8 July 2013, just two days after the of an Asiana 777 in San Francisco, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) sent out a press release stating that the organization was "stunned by the amount of detailed operational data from on-board recorders released by the National Transportation Safety Board," saying also that the amount of information released during the field portion of the investigation was unprecedented.

NTSB post accident policies on information
The speed at which NTSB releases information is part of their normal policy. On its web site, the NTSB states that after an accident, it strives to conduct two press conferences a day when on scene, where Board's spokespersons discuss factual, documented information about the accident. The NTSB may remain on site for up to a week, and they may also have several public affairs specialist to handle media requests.

Media involvement past and present
While the NTSB's policies with respect to being transparent and providing factual information to the public in the early stages of an investigation has not changed over the last few decades, the media realities are far different from the past. A little as a generation ago, only the largest media organizations had the resources needed to send video to viewers around the world, and most people had to wait until the following day's newspapers to get photos and interviews from those involved in the accident. Because of these kind of limitations, it could take days or weeks before minute details of an accident would be available to the public.

Compare the past with the present, where it takes little more than a YouTube or Twitter account (both available for free) for any individual or group to communicate with the entire world within seconds. Anyone interested in an accident can choose from a wide range of resources for information, and can get plenty of information directly from the investigating authorities unfiltered and without delay.

NTSB and social media
A 23 July 2013 article published by Twitter quoted an NTSB official stated that sending out tweets after an accident is standard NTSB policy because it helps to keep both the media and the public stay informed during an accident investigation.

The Wall Street Journal article discussed how the NTSB's use of Twitter to communicate with the media and the public after an accident has forced other parties involved in investigations, particularly airlines and the FAA, to speed up their responses both the the investigating authorities and to the public. The following chart was taken fro the article, and shows that NTSB sent out 86 tweets in the days after the 6 July 2013 crash of an Asiana 777 (flight 214) in San Francisco, with the largest number (30) sent the day after the crash.

A search for tweets sent by NTSB (@NTSB) about the crash reveals that many of the tweets contained links to a wealth of information, including photos from the crash site, videos of press conferences, and the number of times the original tweet was retweeted:
Tweets from NTSB containing the word 'Asiana'
Tweets from NTSB containing hashtag #Asiana214
Tweets from NTSB containing the number '214'

Note that the search was conducted on the Twitter search site at, and as is the case with most search engines, different search terms give different results, so it helps to use various search terms associated with an event.

NTSB uses a variety of social media tools to provide information to the public. In addition to Twitter, NTSB uses Flickr to post high resolution photos from accidents, and also has a YouTube channel where past press conferences can be reviewed at any time. Because all of their published information is in the public domain, anyone can use these photos and interviews without cost, and without first asking permission.

The future has more and not less social media
In spite of the protests about the speed at which the NTSB releases information, it is very likely that the future will see a greater role for social media in accident investigations. In the recent Southwest and Asiana crashes, photos and videos taken by some of the passengers involved in the accidents are being used by the NTSB to help further the investigations.

Perhaps the best description of what the future holds is from a headline from this recent headline from an article from the Airline Passenger Experience Association, "Social media becomes important tool in accident probes whether safety professionals like it or not." The article is about the August 2013 meeting if the International Association of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI), where among other things, an informal poll of the roughly 300 air safety specialists in attendance showed that almost all of them used Twitter. Representatives from the Canadian and German aviation accident investigation agencies, as well as a representative from Southwest Airlines, agreed that information supplied by passengers and other witnesses, and shared online, have helped investigators.

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