WASHINGTON — Deborah Hersman strode into a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) briefing room packed with journalists last month and delivered an unexpectedly blunt talk about the battery problems that had grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
“The expectation in aviation is to never experience a fire on board an aircraft,” the NTSB chairwoman declared, her voice deliberate but dispassionate.
Her directness didn’t surprise those who know her as an uncompromising advocate for making all forms of travel safer.
With Hersman, 42, as its leading voice, the NTSB has pushed every state to make not wearing seat belts a primary ticketing offense; taken on parents who don’t buy separate seats on airplanes for infants and toddlers; and recommended an absolute ban — so far unheeded — on cellphone use by drivers.
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“It was very refreshing to have her say that” about the batteries, said John Goglia, former NTSB board member who was replaced by Hersman in June 2004. “A fire on board an airplane is severe.”
Though the NTSB has long operated as an independent safety watchdog, its past leaders “have been more reserved in tone and approach,” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant with Leeham Co. in Issaquah.
Hersman, by contrast, “has been real forceful.”
Third woman at helm
Hersman, who declined to be interviewed, is the third woman to head the NTSB in its 46-year history. Appointed as chairwoman in 2009, she is the only person on the five-member board who is not a pilot, engineer or a safety expert.
But Hersman is well versed in safety regulations. She spent a dozen years on Capitol Hill, including as senior Democratic adviser to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which writes legislation governing the NTSB. Her father, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Walt Hersman, was a fighter pilot and a test pilot. Her husband is a software engineer.
Hersman also honed her technical expertise while overseeing on-site investigations of 19 major transportation accidents. NTSB board members rotate on-call duty to serve as lead federal agents at accident scenes.
She was called to the February 2009 crash in icy weather of a Colgan Air commuter plane near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50, and the collision four months later of two Metro trains in Washington, D.C., that left nine dead.
Now she is presiding over her agency’s highest-profile investigation involving a jetliner in years. The last fatal accident on a commercial flight in the United States was the Colgan one.
The international grounding of the 787, ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration, is unprecedented for its pre-emptive nature with a brand-new aircraft.
But the fact that the batteries caused no fatalities or injuries in two January incidents of fire or smoke hasn’t spared Boeing pointed talk from Hersman, who likens accident prevention to serving as “our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
In her second briefing, she faulted both Boeing and the FAA for flawed test assumptions used to certify the batteries.
Hersman displayed an assertive ease during the initial 787 briefing, where she was flanked by the NTSB’s top two technical experts. For more than 40 minutes, Hersman fielded a volley of questions about battery voltage and overcharged cells. She yielded to Joe Kolly, NTSB’s director of research and engineering, only when a reporter asked what might cause an uncontrolled overheating known as thermal runaway.
That performance demonstrates “she was very much involved in it and she understands it,” said Goglia, who in the past has fretted about declining aviation technical experience among NTSB board members.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal and other media reported Hersman is being considered by President Obama to replace departing Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The White House declined to comment.
Hersman’s second term as head of the NTSB, a relatively tiny agency with just 400 employees, runs until August. Her term on the overall board expires Dec. 31.
Switching from leading a safety-watchdog agency to becoming a regulator wouldn’t be uncommon. Former NTSB Chairwoman Marion Blakey, for one, went on to become administrator of the FAA, which is part of the Transportation Department. She now heads the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents Boeing and other manufacturers and suppliers.
Hersman, who has three school-age sons, has made child passenger safety one of her chief concerns.
For instance, she has pushed the FAA to mandate seat belts or restraints for all fliers, including those under 2. In speeches, Hersman has noted how illogical it is for parents to secure their babies in restraints on the drive to the airport, only to ditch the car seat upon boarding.
“The laws of physics don’t change, whether you’re on an airplane or in an automobile,” she said.
In December 2011, the NTSB issued a controversial call to ban all cellphone uses by drivers. The nonbinding recommendation, Hersman said, was based on crash data from distracted driving — including instances where wireless headsets and other hands-free devices were in use.
Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state traffic agencies, said her group has not endorsed the ban because of lack of research about its effectiveness. No state has an outright ban on drivers’ cellphone use.
Nonetheless, Harsha praised Hersman as an articulate and visible champion.
“I think she’s been an outstanding messenger,” Harsha said. “Probably one of the most outstanding messengers.”
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org