In September of 1993, Wesley J. Smith and I wrote a book titled Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety We made a large number of recommendations based on official crash investigations, technical specialists inside and outside the industry whom we interviewed and the many insights of pilots, maintenance workers and flight attendants. All their voices needed an outlet to get the FAA’s attention, not to mention that of the airline and aircraft industries.
The media which covered our findings could not get the FAA or the industry to react. Commercial jet flight was coming off a few good years and complacency about rising risks. These include maintenance fraud, ageing aircraft fleet (the oldest in the western world), loose inspections, commuter plane double standards regarding equipment and pilot standards, bogus parts, inadequate crashworthiness on takeoffs and landings, air traffic control breakdowns and other problems now in the news.
No one from the FAA was willing to respond to invitations from television studios. The agency issued denials to our charges and kept reiterating its mantra that the airline industry is safe. This is an agency that sees addressing real problems, even during a period of fairly good safety, for commercial aircraft as unnecessarily alarming the public and its industry buddies.
Repeated recommendations to the FAA by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were brushed off. NTSB frustration led one official to say that the FAA operates under a “tombstone imperative.” Only after plane crashes occur does the FAA wake up and promise to do something that usually takes years to materialize.
It took several plane crashes in 1994 and the Valujet tragedy in May of this year to get the FAA out of its stupor. And guess what? The men at the top, Secretary of Transportation Pena and FAA Administrator Hinson fired Anthony J. Broderick, the FAA associate administrator who was the agency’s long-time spokesperson and a civil servant.
Pena and Hinson did not fire themselves. After all they are political appointees of President Clinton. They were the industry-indentured men who went on television right after the Valujet crash, before the 110 bodies in the Everglades swamp had turned cold, to loudly pronounce Valujet a safe airline and one they had used and would use again.
That is when the press displayed its own tombstone mentality of always waiting for crashes before investigating. Reporters day after day printed stories about the FAA’s appalling non-regulation of ValuJet, about the FAA’s internal memos, that Pena and Hinson disregarded before the Florida disaster, warning about Valujet’s safety problems and about the FAA’s general failings across the board.
For once the deregulation hounds on Capitol Hill were silent, not barking at this agency because the legislators do fly the airlines and their desire for their safety sobers their usually fevered minds against law and order for corporations.
Now the FAA is overhauling its procedures or so it says. But the do-nothing culture of the FAA, that places the burden of passenger safety so heavily on the valiant pilots, will not go away very easily. The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, Mary Schiavo, who upset the bigwigs by saying publically she would not fly Valujet (before the crash), has warned about expecting the FAA to change without deep determination starting at the top levels in government and sustained public awareness.
Were we not aware of the FAA’s chronic procrastination over the decades, Wesley Smith and I would be reassured by the FAA’s sudden agreement with us that the agency has to rid itself of its dual mandate (safety and airline industry promotion), has to tighten its inspections, change its cargo safety rules, and listen to its own inspectors for a change.
There is something truly macabre about a government agency that ignores the many NTSB reports, punishes conscientious inspectors, covers up for the industry and only decides to open its ears when the weeping of victims’ families appears on the television screen.
This is one agency that needs a shaking up that will come only when its top management resigns and is replaced by people who know what law enforcement should be all about and can foresee and forestall the tombstones.