The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has revoked the “party status agreement” of the Independent Pilots Association (IPA) and UPS Airlines from its ongoing investigation of a UPS Airbus A300-600 freighter that crashed on approach to Birmingham, Alabama, on Aug. 14, 2013.

The accident killed both pilots when the aircraft burst into flames after hitting a hill less than a mile short of the airport. UPS Airlines is owned by United Parcel Service.
NTSB said it took the action after “both IPA and UPS took actions prejudicial to the investigation by publicly commenting on and providing their own analysis of the investigation prior to the NTSB’s public meeting to determine the probable cause of the accident.” This action, NTSB said, “violated the terms of the party agreement that each had signed at the start of the investigation.”

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said, “NTSB investigations depend heavily upon technical input from the accident parties. If one party disseminates information about the accident, it may reflect that party’s bias. This puts the other parties at a disadvantage and makes them less willing to engage in the process, which can undercut the entire investigation.”

In a Feb. 20 hearing, NTSB lead investigator Dan Bower said the board’s inquiry had not found anything wrong with any of the A300F’s systems. With a systems malfunction ruled out, the hearing focused on the actions of the pilots in the cockpit in the minutes leading up to the crash, UPS’s flight crew training methods and, in particular, whether the pilots were fatigued at the time of the accident.

In a statement released Monday, NTSB said: “Without first consulting with the NTSB, the IPA issued a press release on Aug. 13 providing its own analysis of the accident, ‘UPS Pilots Call for End of Part 117 Carve-Out on Anniversary of Fatigue Crash,’ which is explicitly prohibited in the party agreement. UPS, also without first consulting with the NTSB, posted comments on a website responding to the IPA press release in which it also provided its own analysis.”
“It doesn’t matter who started it,” Hart said. “Neither action is acceptable.”

NTSB may grant “party status” to those organizations that are able to provide technical assistance in an investigation, which is conditional on a signed agreement that “explicitly prohibits them from releasing investigative information to the media or to comment or analyze investigative findings without prior consultation with the NTSB,” the agency said. Once the investigation is completed, all such restrictions are lifted.

A UPS spokesman told ATW in an emailed statement: “UPS was surprised and disappointed to learn of the NTSB’s decision to remove our party status from the Flight 1354 investigation. We are a company that takes regulatory compliance very seriously, which is why we’re troubled by this decision. We maintain that our actions have been in line with NTSB rules for communicating during an accident investigation. Those rules limit discussions to facts released by the investigation. Throughout the investigation, we have limited our discussions to those facts, and that’s what we did this time, too. The NTSB’s position that we should have consulted with them before issuing a media statement represents a change in the interpretation of those rules. This is why we asked the NTSB to reconsider. It is worth noting that the NTSB does not take issue with UPS’s factual statement. Their concern is that we did not notify them. We believe we have been unfairly reprimanded for attempting to set the facts straight and defending our brand. We applaud the NTSB’s goal to conduct a scientific, unbiased investigation. And we appreciate the efforts of the investigation team. UPS has spent the past year working with the NTSB to understand the facts of this accident, and more importantly, how to prevent a future occurrence. As the investigation draws to a close, everyone’s attention should be on what’s most important: advancing aviation safety. And doing so based on the facts.”

IPA spokesman Brian Gaudet told ATW, “The Independent Pilots Association will not comment on today’s NTSB press release and will refrain from commenting on the Flight 1354 accident until the NTSB releases its final report.”