WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board should open a new chapter in its investigation of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 following disclosures by a former Colgan Air executive of federal safety concerns that predated the crash by six months.
That’s the message that Hugh M. Russ III, a lawyer for several of the families of the crash’s victims, delivered in a letter to NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman last month.
“I don’t think that Colgan has told the full truth here. They didn’t reveal the full extent of their knowledge before the crash,” Russ said when asked why he made the request.
In the letter, Russ asked that the safety board once again take testimony from Dan Morgan, the former vice president of safety and compliance at Colgan, which operated the doomed flight that crashed in Clarence on Feb. 12, 2009, claiming 50 lives.
Russ’ request stems from what Morgan told The Buffalo News in May, when he disclosed for the first time that a Federal Aviation Administration official threatened to shut down Colgan in August 2008 because of concerns about its safety culture. Russ also suggested that the safety board take testimony from that FAA official, Nick Scarpinato, the director of the agency’s Flight Standards Office in Herndon, Va. Scarpinato never testified during the initial investigation in 2009.
New testimony into the crash could have implications for the 12 wrongful death lawsuits that remain unsettled in wake of the crash, but it could also have wider impact.
“It also has larger implications for the safety of air travel on regional planes,” Russ said.
The NTSB has already responded to Russ, asking him to send copies of his request to all the parties involved in the crash investigation. Russ has 60 days from the date of his June 13 letter to provide the safety board with “proof of service” – that is, proof that he has contacted those interested parties.
“Once we receive proof of service, we queue up the petition for review,” said Kelly Nantel, the safety board’s chief spokesperson.
In hopes that the safety board will take a closer look at the crash, Russ used his letter to Hersman to compare and contrast Morgan’s 2009 testimony before the safety board with his 2013 comments to The News.
Asked during the safety board hearings on the crash about Colgan’s safety culture, Morgan said: “I would define it as very, very good.”
But when interviewed by The Buffalo News this year, he said: “Our safety culture didn’t do enough to push for following the rules as stringently as we should.”
And when asked about Continental’s involvement with the regional airlines that flew on its behalf in 2009, Morgan told the safety board that Continental is “very, very, very careful to make sure that that’s … an airline they want to put their name on the side of.”
Yet in The Buffalo News interview four years later, he said one major airline refused to even review Colgan’s safety program, adding: “When an airline doesn’t want to have liability, they will not get involved in oversight, because then it would be shown legally that, well, you came in, you looked at the programs, you didn’t find anything wrong, or if you did you didn’t say anything.”
Comparing those statements, Russ said: “I have real concerns about the veracity of his testimony to the NTSB.”
“I think they told everybody to shut up and toe the line,” Russ said, referring to Colgan and its lawyers.
In a follow-up interview last week, Morgan acknowledged that the company’s lawyers carefully prepared him and other company executives before their testimony during the safety board crash investigation.
“Four years later, I don’t think I contradicted anything,” Morgan said, adding that the differences between his testimony and his recent interview statements are more a matter of “a turn of a phrase” than an outright contradiction.
Moreover, Morgan stressed that during the NTSB investigation and the deposition he gave in the wrongful death lawsuits, no one ever asked him about the FAA’s warning to Colgan about its safety culture six months before the crash.
“It does sort of come down to the questions that neither the NTSB nor the lawyers in the deposition asked me the first time around,” Morgan said – adding that the lawyers who prepped him stressed that he should not volunteer information unless asked.
In his letter to Hersman, Russ was generous in his assessment of Morgan, saying: “To his credit, it appears his conscience has now caused him to reveal new information regarding the problems at Colgan.”
But Russ was less generous to the safety board, noting that Morgan’s revelations mark the second time that important information has surfaced that Colgan did not provide to the NTSB during its crash investigation.
Earlier, Russ’ legal team found that Colgan’s vice president of operations and chief pilot decided in August 2008 that pilot Marvin Renslow was not ready to serve as a captain on the plane the airline was adding to its fleet, the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.
Almost immediately, though, the Colgan executives reversed course and upgraded Renslow to captain on the Q400 – the plane he crashed in Clarence only months later.
In light of all that, “we believe it is important to aviation safety that the NTSB take Mr. Morgan’s testimony again and obtain a complete and accurate record of the facts and his opinions regarding Colgan’s safety culture, safety problems in the regional airlines industry and the failure of the major airlines to promote the safety standards of the regional airlines,” Russ wrote to Hersman. “We also believe that the NTSB should also take Mr. Scarpinato’s testimony so that his safety concerns become part of the NTSB record.”
Jennifer West, who lost her husband, Ernie, in the crash, agreed.
“We just want the truth to get out here,” said West, who is one of Russ’ clients. “In my opinion, Colgan has been trying to get away with murder.”
For his part, Morgan said, he had doubts about whether the safety board would open a new phase in its investigation of the Colgan crash.
“Even if they did, there is nothing that I said that would change the probable cause” of the crash, which the safety board blamed on pilot error on the part of Renslow and his co-pilot, Rebecca Shaw, Morgan said.
Morgan said, though, that he has been called to be deposed a second time in the remaining lawsuits and that he’s speaking more openly now because of his lingering concerns about the safety of the regional airline industry.
“My job is not to protect the company at this point,” he said. “I just want to make sure things are out there that are going to correct this industry.”