NTSB Chief Hersman Unsure She’ll Keep Job as Term Ends

Deborah Hersman’s term as chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ends Aug. 3, with no word on whether she’ll be retained, during the accident investigation agency’s busiest stretch since the 1990s.

Hersman, 43, will conclude her second term as chairman as Congress leaves Washington for a five-week recess. Asked when or whether she’ll be renominated, Hersman said it’s out of her control.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” she said in a telephone interview. “That is a decision that the White House will make. Right now I’m focused on the work that’s in front of us from this past week.”

Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, said the administration won’t “speculate on possible future personnel announcements.” Hersman’s term as a board member extends through Dec. 31.

The safety board chairman, who must be confirmed by the Senate, is the top U.S. transportation accident investigator. The position provides a platform to lead probes, hold hearings and recommend safety improvements without authority to implement them.

Hersman has been the public face of the board’s two highest-profile investigations this year -- its probe into what caused battery fires on the Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner that prompted the plane’s grounding, and the July 6 crash in San Francisco of Asiana Airlines Inc. Flight 214, the first fatal commercial plane accident in the U.S. in four years.

Rockefeller Endorsement

She was passed over to succeed Ray LaHood as U.S. transportation secretary despite an endorsement in a Twitter messsage by her former boss, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, one of Congress’s most senior Democrats. President Barack Obama instead chose Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Anthony Foxx.

Rockefeller leads the Senate Commerce Committee, where Hersman was the senior Democratic staff member before being appointed to the safety board in 2004 by Republican President George W. Bush. Obama named her chairman in 2009 and reappointed her two years later.

Nominations for the board and, separately, its chairman require Senate confirmation.

There is a scenario that could effectively keep Hersman in charge if Obama doesn’t act before her chairman’s appointment expires.

Board rules dictate that if there’s no designated chairman, the vice chairman serves as acting chairman. The vice chairman position, held now by Christopher Hart, doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

Vice Chairman

Hart’s term ends Aug. 24. Because that is so soon after Hersman’s term ends, Obama could name her vice chairman, said Ted Lopatkiewicz, who retired in 2011 as the board’s top spokesman. Vice chairmen have served as acting chairman on other occasions after a term expired, he said.

While Hersman has inspired fan blogs for her expertise and calm demeanor before television cameras, pilot unions in the U.S. and South Korea have criticized her handling of the Asiana investigation, saying she’s disclosed too much information and put excessive focus on pilot errors.

Hersman has said she’s been careful to stick to facts.

“We are the advocate for the traveling public,” Hersman said at a briefing earlier this month. “We think it’s important to show our work.”

Mobile Phones

Hersman’s call to ban the use of mobile phone in cars, even with hands-free devices, went beyond the position of LaHood, who made distracted driving his signature cause as transportation secretary. She failed to gain Transportation Department support to lower the blood-alcohol content limit for drunken driving to 0.05.

The board is working on at least 16 major-accident investigations opened this year including the Asiana probe. It’s also looking into the failure of landing-gear on a Southwest Airlines Co. plane in New York, a train crash involving hundreds of commuters in Connecticut, two highway-bridge collapses, and an auto accident that sent a car over the side of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Yesterday the board announced a two-day forum in September on whether transportation operators have a “safety culture.”