The National Transportation Safety Board announced yesterday that it will not hold a public hearing on its investigation of the Comair Flight 5191 crash at Blue Grass Airport.
Attorneys representing families of crash victims and an independent expert called the decision unusual. They say the NTSB almost always conducts hearings in large, high-profile crashes such as the Comair crash, which killed 49 people on Aug. 27 at Blue Grass Airport.
The move implies that the NTSB is leaning strongly toward pilot error as the cause of the accident, attorneys said. The plane crashed after taking off from the wrong runway, which was half the length of the airport's main runway.
"They are fairly confident they know what the facts are," San Francisco attorney Dave Fior said.
"And they're not going to try to get involved in the hornet's nest of trying to determine who's liable. They are going to identify the various causal factors and let the lawyers take it from there."
The board conducts hearings so the public "can have the opportunity to see the government at work," NTSB spokesman Terry N. Williams said. They are conducted at the board's discretion, and often are not called, he said.
In this case, the board wants to finish its investigation in a year, Williams said.
The board will still interview experts, just not in a public forum.
"I want to stress very clearly that it will not diminish the information that we would have gathered in a public forum," Williams said.
Paul Czysz, a retired aeronautics professor at St. Louis University, said that is probably sufficient to satisfy the public's right to know. He noted that the information gathered by the board and its yet-to-be-completed report will eventually become public.
"All you would hear from the experts is they would all agree with the report," Czysz said.
FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the decision whether to hold a public hearing is made by the NTSB.
"This is their accident investigation. They call the shots," she said.
Spitaliere said the FAA might be releasing tapes of communications between the Comair pilots and the air traffic control tower in the next couple of weeks. The date isn't set yet, but the FAA is working on coordinating the release of the tapes, she said.
In January, the NTSB will release the cockpit voice recorder transcript, flight data recorder information, factual reports and interviews, it said yesterday.
It plans to hold a board meeting in late spring or early summer next year to consider a final report on the investigation that will include the determination of the probable cause and potential safety recommendations.
The staff for U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Lexington, said in a statement that "full, fair and (open) hearings are generally a good practice to inform families and the public on matters of great importance to our communities.
"This is particularly the case in matters such as the Comair 5191 crash," the statement said. Chandler and others have raised questions about staffing of the nation's air traffic control system in the wake of the crash. Only one controller was on duty at the time of the crash; the FAA has acknowledged that two controllers should have been working.
Several attorneys cried foul and questioned the board's motives in not holding a public hearing. They said the public has a right to know what the investigation has uncovered sooner rather than later.
"These investigations should not be conducted in secret," attorney David Katzman said.
Katzman, of Michigan, said Comair should publicly answer to accusations it made in a lawsuit that the Federal Aviation Administration and Blue Grass Airport share fault for the accident. That the NTSB would not make it do so leaves the impression that the agency is trying to protect Comair, Katzman said.
"It leaves one with the impression of a hush-hush," he said. "Let's keep our cards close to our vest."
Kate Marx, a Comair spokeswoman, said the airline is neutral and supports the NTSB's investigation.
Williams, the NTSB spokesman, did not know whether Comair or the airport asked for a hearing, but said it is the board's decision to make.
Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley had an opposite theory: He argued that the NTSB was trying to protect the FAA, even though they are independent agencies.
"My concern is whether the involvement of the FAA is clouding their judgment," he said. "There certainly is a marriage (between the FAA and the NTSB.) If the FAA was not involved, would the answer be different?"