KWAME HOLMAN: Employees of ValuJet held a rally on the East front of the capitol this morning calling on Congress not to make a political football out of the problems at their now shutdown airline. Meanwhile, inside a nearby hearing room members of the House Transportation Committee were listening to a broad attack on the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of ValuJet and the nation's other air carriers. Mary Schiavo has been inspector general of the Department of Transportation for more than five years.
MARY SCHIAVO, Director General, Transportation Department: In answering the question of what's wrong at the FAA, at least for myself and for my office, we only have to go back to the history of what I have been doing for five and a half years. Starting in 1991, we were addressing these very same issues. We were asking what is wrong with FAA inspections? And we came up with a virtual laundry list of things that were wrong. We had a hearing. There were promises made and promises not kept. And this back in 1991. You know, a totally different leadership, a totally different administration, but the problems go on. We found problems in safety oversight, problems in maintenance, problems in repair stations, problems in foreign manufactured parts. ValuJet is kind of a microcosm for the problems that we have uncovered at the FAA.
MR. HOLMAN: Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine has followed aviation issues throughout his 20-year congressional career. He contradicted statements by the FAA and the Transportation Department in the wake of the May 11th crash that ValuJet had no serious problems.
SEN. WILLIAM COHEN, (R) Maine: A review of these documents, as well as FAA's inspection results since October '93, clearly show that ValuJet began having problems almost immediately after it began flying, and some of those problems persisted throughout its period of operation. But to me, one of the most serious violations was discovered in September of '94, when an FAA inspector found that a ValuJet aircraft made 148 flights while unworthy. And then a February '96 memo from the FAA to the president of ValuJet stated that the FAA had concern that ValuJet was not meeting--not meeting its duty to provide service with the highest possible degree of safety in the public interest as required by law. And this memo further stated that ValuJet did not have a structure in place to handle its rapid growth, that it may have an organizational culture that is in conflict with operating at the highest possible degree of safety, and then, moreover, a February '96 report provided by three FAA inspectors recommend that the FAA considered having ValuJet go through an immediate recertification.
MR. HOLMAN: And Jim Hall, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the FAA also has longstanding problems regulating airlines that like ValuJet contract out their maintenance work.
JIM HALL, Vice Chairman, NTSB: The Safety Board first addressed the issue of FAA oversight of contract maintenance operations 20 years ago following an accident in Van Nuys, California. We addressed the issue of contract maintenance again in 1982, following a Boeing 737 accident in Washington. Now we are looking at what some have dubbed a "virtual airline," one that provides transportation but conducts none of its own maintenance and training. And this brings me to an observation, Mr. Chairman. Last week, the FAA announced that it would now require airlines to demonstrate the regulatory compliance of each of their major contract maintenance programs and facilities. The implication is that the airlines have not done that until today. If this is true, Mr. Chairman, then we may not just have a ValuJet problem here, we may also have an FAA problem.
MR. HOLMAN: Moments later, FAA Administrator David Hinson told the committee his agency should have scrutinized ValuJet more closely before the May 11th Florida crash that killed 110. But he stressed the lack of oversight did not necessarily contribute to the crash.
DAVID HINSON, FAA Administrator: There is no apparent relationship between the accident and any issues of compliance at ValuJet. The problems at ValuJet from a compliance perspective, in my opinion, are a function of their rate of growth--and require us to reassess the way in which we look at the rate that an air carrier grows.
REP. JAMES OBERSTAR, (D) Minnesota: Appearance is given that the airline really was not at the highest level of safety; you just didn't know it. And the public flew in jeopardy for a period of time. That, at least, is an appearance.
DAVID HINSON: I don't, I don't want to make it too academic, Mr. Oberstar, but it is, it is a logic problem, and it flows something like this. When an airline is compliant and it moves to non-compliance and based upon the data that we had that Sunday, the airline was compliant, how does that work? Last year, as you mentioned, we did ground five airlines, or someone mentioned. If you had asked me about any of those airlines a week before, two weeks before, a month before, six months before, my statement would have been something like this: the airline is compliant, Airline A is compliant, Airline B is compliant, and so forth. And, yes, they're safe. Yet, somewhere in that, in that timeframe because of inspector insights and investigations or for a host of other reasons, that airline migrated from being compliant to non-compliant and was asked to stop flying, or parts of the airline were asked to stop flying. At what point do you find out that they're non-compliant and then ground 'em? That is a logic problem that has caused the FAA lots of heartburn over many, many years.
REP. JOHN DUNCAN, (R) Tennessee: I know you deeply regret this accident, as all of us do. Do you think that the FAA allowed ValuJet to grow too quickly?
DAVID HINSON: Yes, sir, in retrospect, I do, and, uh, where I think the FAA could have done a better job is probably a year ago in April when they were flying I think about twenty-five airplanes and they grew to fifty by February, fifty-one when we asked them to stop growing. It's in that timeframe that, that we might have done a better job of saying to them, why don't you slow down, though your systems may not be quite capable of helping you manage your growth--and there are some lessons learned there for us.
MR. HOLMAN: Florida Democrat Corrine Brown pointed out that not all low-cost airlines have poor safety records.
REP. CORRINE BROWN, (D) Florida: Southwest Airline, a low-cost carrier with an outstanding safety record, how are those operations different from ValuJet?
DAVID HINSON: Southwest Airlines has experienced their growth over a very long period of time since 1972, for example, so 24 years. Umm, ValuJet has been growing much more rapidly. Southwest Airlines has a system that's proven and demonstrated and in place for maintenance, particularly on the maintenance system management area, and ValuJet has had problems in this area. And I think in broad context, those would be the two principal differences.
REP. CORRINE BROWN: Well, in keeping in mind that the growth in the industry is in these low-cost carriers, what precautions, umm, or what planning or how should we regulate the growth?
DAVID HINSON: You have raised, I think, of all the things we've talked about today, you have raised one of the really important questions, i.e., to see if during the first part of an airline's growth, first, second and third year, for example, there are things we need to do differently than we have done in the past. I think that's a very legitimate question. We may decide no, I don't know what the answer to that will be; we may decide yes in some contexts, but, but you have put your finger on exactly an issue that we're dealing with.
MR. HOLMAN: Late this afternoon, the House Transportation Subcommittee called its final witness. Lewis Jordan is ValuJet's president and as he has done since the tragic accident last month, he defended the reputation of his airline.
LEWIS JORDAN, President, ValuJet: I would have grounded this fleet myself if I had had any reason to believe that the airplanes were not safe. The safety of our customers is our No. 1 priority and far and away ahead of any other priority. I simply do not understand the logic of those who think that running an unsafe airline could ever contribute to profitability, could ever contribute to marketing an airline in the public's eye.
MR. HOLMAN: But Jordan will have to wait until ValuJet can prove it can comply with federal aviation standards before his airline can fly again.