Lion Air crash should remind us not to rush to judgment

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This week has been marked by tragedy with the 29 October crash of Lion Air flight JT 610 which lost communication just 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta at 6:20 am local time. The aircraft sank into the Java Sea with 189 people on board. The airline is providing assistance to the families of the victims including a waiting allowance, grief money and compensation for death. The remains of one passenger, Jannatun Shintya Dewi, have been identified through DNA testing.

Almost immediately following the accident, the quest for answers led to speculation on social media. While it is human nature to wonder why something this terrible would happen, it is important not to rush to judgment until the facts are known.

All we know so far is that this same Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft had unreliable airspeed readings on its previous flight, but we do not know what caused that earlier issue and we do not know whether it is directly related to whatever brought down flight JT 610.

We know that the pilot had requested a return to base just before losing communication. We know that the aircraft was delivered to the airline in August of this year and that Lion Air determined it was airworthy. Indonesia’s transport minister removed Lion Air’s technical director and several of the airline’s technicians on Wednesday, citing the accident as a cause of their removal.

We also know that one of the two “black boxes” on the aircraft has now been recovered, reported by Reuters as being the flight data recorder.

The investigation into what happened to JT 610 is being led by the National Transportation Safety Committee of Indonesia, with technical assistance from Boeing and additional assistance from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) under ICAO Annex 13. The engine manufacturer CFM has issued a statement that it is ready to assist with the investigation as needed.

It will be the job of Boeing and CFM representatives – and representatives of any other parts and component manufacturers required – to answer whatever questions investigators may have.

Aviation rules require indelible part markings and full traceability of both parts and processes. Those records are detailed. Moreover, individuals working in aviation companies are expected to have full training records, job records and test records on file. The same is true of maintenance processes and maintenance personnel.

There is a principle of statistics which also applies to aircraft accidents: correlation does not imply causation. Two things may happen at the same time, or in a related context, without one thing causing the other. Only a thorough investigation can determine root cause of this accident. Once that is determined, then corrective actions can follow. Joining what might be random dots together in an effort to paint a picture can do more damage than good.

For example, earlier this week several versions of the maintenance record for the aircraft found their way to social media, generating questions on the accuracy of the documents. There was debate over which version of the leaked document was correct and questions raised over why maintenance may have had different versions of the same record.

In fact, none of the copies distributed on social media should be considered valid. No internal documents of any kind leaked before a thorough investigation is completed can be trusted to be accurate.

It is the job of investigators to reconcile multiple versions of events and all existing records, examine the evidence and ultimately reach a conclusion that can help aviation avoid a recurrence of the accident. That takes time.

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The NTSB is clear on what happens during the first days following a transport accident, with established procedures in place to avoid misinformation and distress to those who are suffering unimaginable grief at the loss of their loved ones. While the NTSB is not the lead on this investigation, its procedures still offer valuable insights on the public might expect when accidents happen.

Already the press has asked questions of airline management about the ongoing investigation, as they should, but there is a chance that, in their effort to be helpful, they will say something that they later have to retract. While it may be frustrating that management and investigators are limited in their public response, it is equally disconcerting when incomplete or inaccurate information is leaked – especially to the families and loved ones of the 189 souls lost on this flight.

As the NTSB states, “Even after the team has left the accident scene, the fact-gathering phase of the investigation continues.” As we’ve learned from previous accidents, the timeline for conclusion of an investigation can extend beyond 18 months. We’ve also learned over the years that in that time, investigators can identify failure modes that might have eluded experts and would certainly elude those without any expertise.

Aviation is one of the safest modes of transport. It remains so because in the rare instances that accidents happen the investigations carried out are thorough, if time-consuming. What matters most for now is the suffering of those left behind. Out of respect, we should attempt to lessen their grief.

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2 Comments

  1. Marisa, Respectfully I have to ask, in what other field of journalism do reporters surrender their own judgment and analysis and wait for the “officials”? Had it not been for intrepid reporting the Arrow Air Flight that killed US military personnel in 1985 would still be thought of as an icing incident as the Canadians concluded. Air New Zealand Flight 901 which flew into Mt. Erebus might still be attributed to pilot error as the government investigation initially claimed and the airline’s coverup of its own culpability would have remained a secret.
    Here in the USA, the NTSB took 4 years to get to a probable cause in TWA Flight 800 though early evidence from the debris led to the likelihood of a fuel-air explosion initiated from inside the fuel tank, within a week of the crash on July 17, 1996; a possibility I reported on for CNN at the time.
    The most significant assist to air safety investigations is the increase of information that is available early on and the crowdsourcing of expertise. Malaysia Flight 370’s best scenarios as to what happened did not come from the officials in Malaysia but armchair investigators and air safety journalists.
    Following the crash of a BAe 146 in Colombia that killed a Brazilian soccer team, a quick search for the flight range of that model aircraft showed it in the neighborhood of two-thousand miles. The flight was 1,800 miles. It does not take Sherlock Holmes and certainly not years to report the possibility that fuel starvation may have been a contributor to the crash which I did in an article for Forbes.

    What the general public wants to know is what happened. What investigators want to know is why it happened. Because only then can they make air travel safer.

    It is not our job to sit and wait to be told by the professionals and suspend our own reporting. Nor is it our job to lessen the grief of family members. A transparent and thorough investigation is the best way to respect those who die in air accidents, and a probative press corps is how we assure that we get one.

  2. AC

    The expectation should be for responsible journalism.

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that a journalist suspend their activities and sit and wait while the investigators do their jobs. But separating fact from rumors and unsubstantiated speculation – by armchair experts and twitter aviation analysts – is a bare minimum for your line of work – a journalistic TSO, if you will.

    Yes, investigators will find out why it happened, especially since the wreckage is accessible. And yes, the general public wants to know what happened. But as aviation journalists, you owe it to the public to report facts, be it official information or from your own investigation, without the dramatics of a cable news-type channel that demands (and supplies) immediate answers regardless of what’s known. Also, while it may not be your job to lessen the grief of family members, respecting their trauma is not much to ask, and a good start would be to report responsibly – i.e. say what is known and investigate what isn’t. For this incident, I would expect the focus to be on the safety culture of the airline, by way of interviews with current and former pilots/ mechanics/ management/ crew etc.

    It’s been 5 days since the crash, one data recorder has been located, and it won’t be long before the other is as well and some initial information comes out.

    With respect to the first comment, ” in what other field of journalism do reporters surrender their own judgment and analysis and wait for the “officials”…”, you need not look further than Washington DC, where the majority of journalists have failed miserably to use basic judgement, analysis, and questioning in their reporting, and which has resulted in the daily reality show we see. playing out.

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