U.S. accident investigators took the unusual step of removing United Parcel Service and its pilots’ union from a probe into the cargo-jet crash that killed two people last year in Birmingham, Alabama.
The company and the Independent Pilots Association “took actions prejudicial to the investigation” by issuing comments and analyzing findings before the National Transportation Safety Board meets Sept. 9 to determine the cause, the agency said today in an e-mailed release.
NTSB includes manufacturers, airlines and unions as parties to investigations to provide technical assistance. While they are also allowed to lobby the agency on its findings, the safety board limits what they can say in public.
“If one party disseminates information about the accident, it may reflect that party’s bias,” NTSB acting Chairman Christopher Hart said in the release. “This puts the other parties at a disadvantage and makes them less willing to engage in the process, which can undercut the entire investigation.”
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UPS was “surprised and disappointed” by NTSB’s decision and has appealed to be reinstated, according to an e-mailed statement by a spokesman, Mike Mangeot. The Atlanta-based company, which didn’t notify NTSB prior to posting its comment, didn’t violate the board’s rules, Mangeot said.
He said UPS has been “unfairly reprimanded for attempting to set the facts straight and defending our brand.”
The UPS plane, an Airbus A300-600F, crashed shortly before dawn on Aug. 14, 2013, as it was preparing to land in Birmingham. It hit trees and a utility pole before slamming into a hillside and bursting into flames.
The NTSB took issue with an Aug. 13 press release by the IPA saying that pilot fatigue played a role in the accident, according to the letter it sent to the union. The union has urged lawmakers to include cargo pilots in new rest requirements that went into effect Jan. 4 for passenger airline crews.
A day later UPS posted an online comment in response to the union’s release, which the agency concluded also violated its rules, according to a letter to the carrier.
“It doesn’t matter who started it,” Hart said. “Neither action is acceptable.”
The IPA isn’t commenting on the NTSB’s action, Brian Gaudet, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. The union also won’t talk about the investigation until after the safety board releases its final report, Gaudet said.
Captain Cerea Beal, 58, of Matthews, North Carolina, and First Officer Shanda Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tennessee, died in the accident.
Documents and testimony at a Feb. 20 hearing showed the pilots made several errors as they attempted to touch down at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport’s Runway 18, which is 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) shorter than the alternate landing strip and lacked an instrument-landing system that guides aircraft on a constant descent.
The accident has raised questions about fatigue and pilot actions.
Because the removals come as the investigation is nearing its conclusion, it won’t have a significant impact on the probe. Both UPS and the IPA have already submitted reports suggesting how NTSB should rule.
While rare, removing parties to an investigation isn’t unprecedented. In December 2010, the safety board removed American Airlines, now part of American Airlines Group Inc., from an investigation into a runway accident in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, two days earlier.
American had taken one of the plane’s two crash-proof recorders and downloaded its contents prior to turning the device over to the agency, according to an NTSB press release.