The ninth AViCON Aviation Insurance Conference, held on September 10th and 11th, took place near Annapolis, MD at RTI Headquarters. Unlike many legal and insurance aviation conferences, AViCON focuses on aviation safety, accident investigation, and claim resolution. The unique format centered on a fictional aviation accident scenario, which served as a common theme throughout the two-day conference. DRI, the Voice of the Defense Bar was a sponsor of AViCON and provided delegates with CLE and CE credit for the program.
The 2015 accident scenario depicted a fictional airline disaster where a regional jet crashed on takeoff from a New England airport. RTI’s Imaging Science Department showed a state-of-the-art animation that reenacted the accident and revealed several possible contributing factors to the crash, including piloting error, fatigue, and maintenance or power plant issues. At the end of the first day, a second animation showed an unmanned aircraft (drone), flying in the airliner’s flight path, and suggested that the pilot took evasive maneuvers to avoid the drone.
So often, conferences and seminars lack any central theme, and offer a slate of topics which could be timely, but are wholly unrelated. One goal in hosting AViCON was to avoid that scattered approach and use the fictitious accident as a common fact pattern as a vehicle with which attendees might discuss current issues without conflict. To this, AViCON added a central theme: aviation safety.
All people involved in aviation impact aviation safety, and in our small sector of the industry, lawyers, insurers and expert witnesses are no different. After an incident/accident, we investigate what happened, attempt to apportion fault and resolve claims, using the legal process if necessary. Through this sometimes vicious cycle, we work to incorporate lessons learned, and improve aviation safety.
AViCON: Part One – Aviation Safety and Accident Investigation
AViCON’s first panel regarded aviation safety and featured Capt. John Deleeuw and Vickie Toman from American Airlines. Additional experts on this session were RTI’s Steve Hull, who is a former safety officer with British Airlines and a Safety Director for VLM Airlines, and Global Aerospace. Steve Hull moderated the panel, which discussed the efforts the industry is taking to pro-actively improve aviation safety, from airlines to insurers.
We all know that despite our best efforts, mistakes happen, and machines fail. Each failure, however, brings a new opportunity to improve aviation safety. Perhaps this is the reason the United States named its primary investigatory agency the National Transportation Safety Board.
No discussion of aviation accident investigation would be complete without looking at the NTSB and its investigatory process. We were fortunate to commence with a compelling discussion on aviation accident investigation with a keynote address by the Honorable Christopher Hart, Chairman of the NTSB.
It is difficult to envision a better speaker for AViCON than Chairman Hart, who himself is a pilot, an engineer, and a lawyer. Chairman Hart outlined the investigatory process of the NTSB and discussed the NTSB’s role in accurately investigating accidents, and also in improving safety. A panel discussion followed with Tom Tobin of Wilson Elser moderating a panel comprised of Steve Hull (RTI), Capt John Deleeuw (American Airlines), Mike Gordon (Piper Aircraft), and David Tochen (General Counsel, NTSB). The group discussed aviation accident investigation and best steps for working with the NTSB. Former NTSB member John Goglia followed the panel and presented a mock briefing concerned with the fictitious accident, and provided additional tips for working with the NTSB during an accident investigation.
It may go without saying, but when disaster strikes, the airline, plane manufacturer, and related parties must understand how to cope with the maelstrom a 24 hour news cycle offers, too often fueled by online commentary, conjecture, and chaos. Richard Levick, President and founder of LEVICK, a noted public relations firm based in Washington DC, provided an engaging talk focused on staying ahead of the news, protecting your corporate brand, and surviving the crisis.
AViCON made full use of its setting at RTI, a forensic engineering company and aviation consultancy, and attendees left the lecture hall for several “Hands-On” sessions, addressing best practices for evidence inspections and scientific testing to support (or disprove an opponents’) legal theory of an accident.
Jim Robinson from Gordon & Rees and Ed Libassi from A&P Aviation Consulting covered best practices for conduct, preparation for and attendance at evidence and site inspections. Here they reviewed the need for effective wreckage-preservation agreements and inspection protocols, as well as the importance of selecting the right expert and following the chain of custody. It is crucial to determine whether to functional test or disassemble the evidence, and to employ any notes, images and video that may have been taken at the inspection site.
It’s rare in the world of forensic engineering that a root-cause failure analysis involves only one engineering discipline. Aviation accidents are often characterized by a complex chain of events leading up to the accident or failure. Experts led AViCON attendees through the process of deconstructing these events and testing the resulting hypotheses. Further, the session led by Matthew Wagenhofer, Ph.D (RTI) Mike Gordon (Piper), displayed how different experts must communicate their findings with one another. This involved a mock case study showing how the results of an electrical test could inform the development of a mechanical systems or materials performance testing protocol, or vice versa. Attendees also had the chance to view the metallurgical findings through a microscope.
No aviation conference is complete without a discussion of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones. Mark Dombroff, from Dentons, led a panel discussion with Glenn Vallach of USAIG that discussed regulatory, safety, and insurance issues concerning UAS. One question on everyone’s mind is ‘what will happen if a drone causes an accident?’ We know that frequent close encounters between a drone and an aircraft already exist. AViCON incorporated this concern into the fact pattern, and displayed “footage” via a news break at the end of the first day where the drone appeared to be a factor in the fictitious accident.
AViCON: Part Two – Resolving the Claims
Resolving insurance claims that arise from an airline accident has been a primary focus since the first AViCON conference at Lloyds of London in 1995. Twenty years later, that same emphasis remains. The conference offered views from the Plaintiff’s side of the aisle, perspective from the claims perspective at all levels, using demonstrative aids to help support the case, and concluded with a focused view on alternative dispute resolution, including a discussion of ethical pitfalls to avoid. AViCON Attendees were fortunate to receive an inside view (and participate in) the claims process. Plaintiff and defense attorneys discussed the claims process with aviation insurers and industry representatives, and the conference culminated with an open mediation where the primary defendants created a funding agreement to satisfy claims. The mediation incorporated the fictional accident scenario, the feedback from all attendees, and many hidden (and distinctly negative) facts.
The incredible insight into the NTSB, and inspiring keynote address by Chairman Hart coupled with an open window view on the claims process provided attendees with an interactive and candid experience very different from traditional seminars. Combined with the numerous networking opportunities found during the breakfasts, coffee breaks, cocktail reception and impromptu dinner groups, AViCON offered a refreshing opportunity for the speakers and attendees to mingle in a relaxed setting on the shores of the Chesapeake.
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