The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) advises member nations to waste no time before ordering the public dissemination of critical information identified in the course of the investigation of an aircraft accident or incident.
ICAO’s succinct instructions on handling accident information are included in Annex 13, Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation, which says that, “when matters directly affecting safety are involved, it shall be sent as soon as the information is available and by the most suitable and quickest means available.”
Preliminary accident reports “shall be sent by facsimile, email or airmail within 30 days,” ICAO says, and final reports should be issued “in the shortest possible time, and if possible, within 12 months of the date of the occurrence.”
But while some investigative bodies are quick to disseminate critical accident information, their speed does not always match that of modern media — cable news, the internet and social media, for example — which are becoming increasingly capable of producing relevant and accurate information using a variety of information sources, including third-party data enabled by new satellite technology.
Whether the public interest in safety would be served by news media reports or by urging investigators to hurry up with their release of information has been a matter for debate, including during discussions at Flight Safety Foundation’s International Air Safety Summit (IASS) in November 2019 in Taipei.
Participants in the discussion agreed that when there is a lack of accurate and credible information after a catastrophic event, there is a temptation by the public and the media to fill that vacuum with speculation and conjecture. They said that the spread of such non-factual information interferes with the development of effective solutions to the causes of major accidents. On the other hand, the panel participants agreed, the availability of new sources of data and information increasingly accessible by the public and the news media are making it possible to paint a fairly accurate picture of what occurred in an accident.
“We need to start looking at ways to expedite the flow of information,” Foundation President and CEO Dr. Hassan Shahidi said, suggesting the need for more frequent updates from investigators as they look for the causes of accidents. “Technology has changed. Things can be done faster and more efficiently.”
One example of how the media, over a relatively short period of time, were able to illuminate key factors associated with major accidents involves the two Boeing 737 MAX accidents — the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018, after departure from Jakarta, Indonesia,1 and that of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 nearly five months later on March 10, 2019, after departure from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.2 All passengers and crew in both airplanes ─ a total of 346 people ─ were killed.
Many facts that were revealed over the next few months by media investigations of the two Boeing MAX accidents appeared to be consistent with information that eventually was released in the final report on the Lion Air crash and the preliminary report on the Ethiopian Airlines accident. One factor in the accidents was the MAX’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) — a new feature that had been introduced in MAX airplanes to enhance their pitch stability in manual flight with the flaps up and at an elevated angle of attack.
Media reports rapidly zeroed in on the role of MCAS and its response to erroneous information about the airplane’s angle of attack. In the ensuing months, other important information trickled out as a result of continued media investigations and the demand of the public for more information, which led to public hearings. Boeing, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other authorities began to address the issues as they became clear, even before there was a final accident report.
A key question, according to participants in the IASS discussion, is whether the speedier release of official relevant findings from the Indonesian investigation might have helped avert the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Some information from the Indonesian investigation was available early on in the news media and through other online and social media outlets.
However, as the panelists agreed, while this may have served the immediate thirst of the public for information, it was not a substitute for the comprehensive and methodical forensic approach of professional accident investigation, which is designed to determine what occurred in these accidents, why it occurred and how any problems should be corrected. They all recognized that accident investigators must meet a greater burden of proof and accuracy than is required of the media.
While regulators and accident investigators often say that there are reasons that information cannot be made public while an investigation is in progress, members of the media sometimes publish or broadcast the same, safety-critical information, which they obtain from unofficial sources.
When investigators are able to quickly uncover facts, those facts could be released officially more quickly than was possible in the 1940s, when Annex 13 was drawn up in the days before the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, discussion participants said.
They said that an analysis of Annex 13 may be called for to determine whether changes in the document might be necessary to accommodate today’s needs for information.
- Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi (KNKT). Final Aircraft Accident Investigation Report KNKT.18.10.35.04, “PT. Lion Mentari Airlines Boeing 737-8 (MAX); PK-LQP; Tanjung Karawang, West Java, Republic of Indonesia; 29 October 2018.” October 2019.
- Ethiopian Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau. Aircraft Accident Investigation Preliminary Report No. AI-01/19, “Ethiopian Airlines Group B737-8 (MAX) Registered ET-AVJ; 28 nm South East of Addis Ababa, Bole International Airport, March 10, 2019.” https://reports.aviation-safety.net/2019/20190310-0_B38M_ET-AVJ_PRELIM.pdf