The capture theory and federal investigations of aviation accidents
Bowling, David C.
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The idea that a federal regulatory agency can become captive of the industry it has regulatory responsibility over is a familiar concept in political science theory. On a practical level however, capture can bring about devastating results if not recognized and controlled, especially when it involves public transportation safety. Aviation disasters in the 1990s raised public anxiety and caused the federal government to reexamine its ability to insure the public's safety in the air. Of great concern was that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the nation's independent guardian of transportation safety, was losing its ability to conduct complex aviation accident investigations, causing it to rely more on aircraft manufacturers and operators through the "party system," a mutual arrangement between the NTSB and industry, for the technical and operational expertise needed to conduct its investigations. A 1998 independent study argued that the party system created the appearance that the agency could be unduly influenced by manufacturers' representatives during the course of a crash investigation. This study goes beyond the findings of the independent study and asks whether the capture theory helps explain the results of aircraft accident investigations and the safety recommendations made by the NTSB. This study uses themes derived from coding 38 interviews of persons from government and industry involved in aircraft accident investigation. The derived themes led to three principal findings, which are that the NTSB is the subject of inadvertent capture by the design of the party system, which establishes the operating relationship between the NTSB and manufacturers' and operators' representatives. Second, that the NTSB's investigations through the preparation of factual reports pose a power position that proves to be very difficult to circumvent by the interested parties before the facts of an investigation are released to the public. And finally, the NTSB investigative findings influence party behavior, where facts found during the investigation are identified to the parties and the parties act to resolve the safety deficiencies immediately, well before the conclusion of the investigation.