Ex-inspector raises frightful FAA doubts

In this decade alone, commercial airplane crashes have taken the lives of hundreds of Americans. Yet the Federal Aviation Administration and the airline industry it oversees insist that the risk of dying in a crash is minuscule. After all, statistics show that people are much more likely to drown in a bathtub or be killed in a car accident.
But when an air disaster strikes, we are reminded how dangerous it can be to fly 30,000 feet in the air inside a pressurized metal and plastic container. Faith comes into play each time we board an airplane. We entrust pilots to lift off, fly and land safely. We expect the airline to properly inspect and maintain its planes. We trust the appropriate government agency to enforce federal safety regulations. But former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo says that faith is misplaced.
For major airlines, safety is good for business, and they monitor their own safety admirably. But that’s not always the case with smaller carriers, and it’s here where the FAA’s documented history of complacency in aviation safety inspection is most worrisome. Dubbed the “tombstone agency” in Washington, the FAA tends to step in only after people die. According to Schiavo’s new book “Flying Blind, Flying Safe,” if the FAA did its job, many disasters could be averted.
To a great extent, Schiavo blames the FAA for the Florida Everglades crash of ValuJet Flight 592. Three months before the May 1996 tragedy, she prodded the FAA to investigate ValuJet for serious safety violations. The agency’s subsequent investigation recommended the carrier be grounded for its terrible safety record. The plane that crashed, an old DC-9, had a long rap sheet for faulty equipment and emergency landings. Yet it, and the airline, continued to fly.
At the center of the FAA’s lack of action was the conflict, if not overt contradiction, between the two primary elements of its mission: the duty to both regulate and promote the airline industry. Schiavo contends that the FAA favored the latter responsibility, allowing outdated or bogus equipment in planes and air traffic control centers to keep expenses low and airlines competitive.
The tragic case-in-point of Flight 592 — the FAA overlooked ValuJet’s safety problems while at the same time praising its low fares and rapid expansion — finally led to action on Capitol Hill. Last July, Congress adopted Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Wendell Ford’s amendments to the FAA Reauthorization Act, giving the agency the sole task of ensuring airline safety.
Although this is certainly a step in the right direction, it doesn’t answer the critical question of who watches the watchdog. The FAA’s long-standing habit of knowing about danger but not acting won’t necessarily be remedied by its streamlined role. Perhaps the most disturbing element of Schiavo’s story is the fact that she left her inspector general post because she felt she could do more to make the skies safe by writing a book. So entrenched is the FAA’s ineffective bureaucracy that it’s nearly impossible for a right-minded official, even in the highest ranks, to make a difference. For the time being, passengers must trust the pilots and airlines to do their jobs, because the FAA clearly is not.