“We Have An Airplane Down”: Dealing With Emergencies-Part I

It has been said that the very best emergency response plan is only good for the first few hours.  It permits you to make proper notifications, organize your investigation team and set up necessary command centers.

Since every accident is different, after these tasks and others have been accomplished, emergency response becomes, in large measure, reactive.  One area where you must be proactive is the location, gathering, preservation and management of documents, as well as the supplying of documents to accident investigation authorities and others.

The airline must retain “all records, reports, internal documents, and memoranda dealing with the accident or incident, until authorized by the NTSB to the contrary.”  (See 49 CFR Section 830.10(d).)

The airline must “forthwith permit inspection, photographing, or copying” of pertinent records by the NTSB. (See 49 CFR Section 831.9(a).)

The airline should always retain original records.  There is no requirement that original records be given to the NTSB.

Create and maintain a document transmittal log that includes at a minimum; document title or description, date of request, requested by date delivered, person delivered to, number of pages.

Documents that are made available should generally be stamped “Confidential” to ensure that proprietary information is protected.  It is best to err on the side of marking documents confidential since the designation can always be retracted at a later date.

Failure to preserve key documents is not only a violation of federal regulations, but can also be construed as spoliation of evidence in any civil litigation or criminal investigation that may ensue.

Access to the records should be limited to investigation personnel, persons authorized to participate in the investigation and legal representatives of the airline.

The following documents, at a minimum, should be immediately identified and secured:

  • Aircraft Maintenance Records. All maintenance records for the accident aircraft, including any that are not normally retained, should be immediately impounded and placed under lock and key.  No one, including the NTSB and FAA, should be allowed to take these documents.  The NTSB takes custody of the wreckage and cargo, but the operator is responsible for retaining the records. (See 49 CFR Section 830.10 (d).) Do not lose control of these records!
  • Operational and Maintenance Manuals. All manuals that are updated periodically should be “frozen” in the state of revision that existed on the day of the accident.  These manuals include, but are not limited to, the Flight Operations Manual, Pilot Operating Handbook, Quick Reference Handbook, Aircraft Maintenance Manual, General Maintenance Manual, Flight Attendant’s Manual, etc.  Copies of the frozen manuals should be retained until the investigation and all litigation has ended.
  • Flight Records. Identify and secure all flight planning and release documents for the accident flight. (Flight plan, weather briefing, notams, aircraft maintenance history, current deferred items, planned and final weight manifest, ACARS/ARINC communications traffic)
  • Passenger Records. Passenger tickets and computerized records should be identified and secured.
  • Training Records. Flight and cabin crew training records should be identified and secured.  Maintenance and dispatch documents should be secured as well.
  • Personnel Records. Flight and cabin crew personnel records should be identified and secured.
  • Passenger and Crew List. A list of passengers and crew on board the accident aircraft should be created and maintained.
  • Company e-mail messages that may be pertinent to the event.
    Code Share Agreements that apply to the accident flight.

(Originally posted April 9, 2014)

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