AVIATION OFFICIALS SPEAK OUT
AUGUST 19, 1997
Many technical and human errors led to the crash of Valujet 592, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The crash has raised questions about the overall safety of air-travel. Kwame Holman reviews the developments to date, and Elizabeth Farnsworth investigates the details with the Chairmen of the NTSB, James Hall. Lastly, an interview with James Burnett, Former NTSB Chairman, and Michael Goldfarb, Former FAA Chief off Staff.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining us now are two former Federal Aviation officials, Michael Goldfarb, a former chief of staff of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Jim Burnett, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Thank you both very much for being with us. Mr. Burnett, you heard what Mr. Hall said. Do you feel the NTSB is on the right track in the conclusions and recommendations that it made today?
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
August 19, 1996:
Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion with NTSB Chairman James Hall.
June 25, 1996:
Kwame Holman reports on the House hearings on the ValuJet crash and the issue of airline safety.
June 19, 1996:
The Federal Aviation Authority has its mandate changed in an effort to improve air safety.
May 26, 1996:
Margaret Warner interviews National Public Radio's Derek Deveron from the Valujet crash site in south Florida.
May 26, 1996:
Experts question the safety of ValuJet and other "off-brand" airlines.
December 26, 1995:
Computer malfunctions continue to plague Chicago O'Hare's air traffic control center.
JAMES BURNETT, Former NTSB Chairman: (Conway, AR) I'm very proud of the NTSB's conduct of this investigation and the conclusions, the analysis they did, the conclusions to which they came. I think all of us who have had a part in the government share in the shame that we should feel about the failure of the government to save the lives of these people when there were steps that have been taken that would have avoided the loss of these lives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Burnett, is this an unusual situation, the ValuJet, Sabretech, FAA all coming in for such heavy criticism? I mean, is this kind of unique, or is this something that would be true in other crashes, where everybody has some role in it?
JAMES BURNETT: Well, I think there are some crashes where it's really hard to identify culpability. However, in this case, there's a lot of culpability. There were a lot of steps that could have been taken to have avoided this and the failure to do so, I think, was senseless. So it's really dripping with blame.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And if you--Mr. Burnett, staying with you--if you were weighing in on this, where would the blame come down most?
JAMES BURNETT: Well, I think we really ought to be outraged at the failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to take steps. After the 1988 incident in Nashville, we had as clear handwriting on the wall as you ever have in a safety situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain that.
JAMES BURNETT: The dangers that were existing of an oxidizer in a cargo hold and creating a fire that would not be suppressed by the airtightness of the cargo hold. And we pointed that out to the FAA. And for a decade, they have stubbornly refused to follow the instruction of that accident. And we had another one, and then they have been very slow to move in response even to this tragic loss of life, even after it was quite clear that their failure to take action was in a large measure responsible for what happened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Goldfarb, you heard this criticism and also the criticism from the hearings today and from Mr. Hall.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB, Former FAA Chief of Staff: (Los Angeles) Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is this justified? Does the FAA deserve it?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, FAA is a bit of an easy target as a government agency, and Jim and I may disagree with this, but, you know, it's 95 percent blame, 5 percent cure. The truth of the matter is: Did they get caught off guard with the rapid growth of ValuJet? Absolutely. No question about it. Were they facing a unique condition, where ValuJet had--basically had contracted out its heavy maintenance and all of its other repairs and overhauls? Absolutely.
They had the inspector work force they needed to understand the indicators of what a ValuJet means when they see these problems in the system? No, they really didn't. But the FAA is playing catch-up here. Jim knows that. Chairman Hall knows that. They don't have the budget. They don't have the stream of money from the Congress. And every year they fight over safety technologies. You remember, Jim, in '88 and '89 that it was a third of a billion dollars was the cost/benefit or the cost analysis of what it would be--what it would take to put those fire suppression, smoke detection systems in. And FAA had to weigh that against other safety--other safety technologies.
On hindsight, should they have moved more quickly on that? Absolutely. You know, they could go to emergency rule. And the public wants to know why when the board makes a recommendation does it take the FAA forever to move quickly. The FAA has to go through a public hearing process. They could move quickly once or twice on an emergency rule. But they have so many competing safety priorities to make the entire system safer that it's not simply focusing on fire suppression, which probably should have been done, but many others, as we saw in Guam, with the crash of the Korean Air, that there were other technologies that probably also needed some attention from a safety standpoint.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hall, what about that? What about the argument that the FAA is just too easy a target, and that they have so many other competing safety issues that they have to deal with that they let this one--they had to let this one slip, was too expensive--too few people--
JAMES BURNETT: Are you addressing that to me?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, Mr. Burnett. I'm sorry. Mr. Burnett.
JAMES BURNETT: Well, I disagree with Michael's analysis. First, this is not an issue of vision. It's not an issue of hindsight. We had the predictor, the prophecy of this accident written on the wall in large and legible letters. The FAA chose to be blind. And they chose to be blind because they didn't have the courage to face up to the resistance of the aviation industry, to the expenditure that was going to be required. This is also--there's a double failure here--the failure to regulate, to require the devices that would have suppressed this fire, detected it, suppressed it, is also a failure to regulate ValuJet as an entity and to surveill it properly. And they did the surveillance. They identified the problems there. The FAA just didn't take the action. And more budget would not have given them more, more courage.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr.--
JAMES BURNETT: The issue is the willingness of the FAA to face up to their safety responsibilities and protection of the life of the American people, even in the face of opposition from the airlines that ordinarily tells them what to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there too much pressure on the airlines, Mr. Goldfarb?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: No. In fact, anybody who tried to get a technology certified through the FAA can attest to how difficult it is to get the FAA to move quickly. They are very hard on safety. They always have been hard. But I think it misses somewhat of the point. The FAA probably polices 5 percent of the airline industry. The responsibility for safety is not the FAA. It's the airlines. It's the ValuJets. It's the carriers. They have to provide the oversight.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And that--
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: They have to have the management team. The FAA can only do quality assurance checks on that. And with reduced budgets, that's becoming an increasingly difficult job, given the growth in air travel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Burnett, let's move forward. Are there other cases like this problem of the fire suppression happening right now but different kinds of cases that the NTSB is pushing for and the FAA is resisting?
JAMES BURNETT: Yes. There are two sets of safety recommendations that the NTSB has pending to the FAA right now. One of them comes out of the Pittsburgh accident involving the 737 airplane. The other one comes out of the TWA 800 accident involving refueling practices, fuel loading practices. And on both of them, the FAA is moving with all of the speed of cold molasses. There is no zeal there to protect the public safety and to keep these accidents from happening again. And it's the same story--second and third verse--that we have seen in the FAA's response to the recommendations that should have led to the prevention of the ValuJet accident.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: One of the cardinal rules, Jim, is when you make a remediation on a safety issue, you have to make sure that the engineering you provide doesn't create other airworthiness and safety problems. And you know that on the center fuel tank issue that the board has recommended the FAA is at odds with its technical community about exactly how to address that problem. Likewise, the 737 rudder issue. Once again the board, what was the board saying in February to the American people when it said that if it was certified today they wouldn't certify a 737? Does that mean that people shouldn't fly a 737? But they didn't ground them. They didn't ask the FAA to ground them. They didn't ask the FAA to ground the 737.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Mr. Goldfarb.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I worked for them, and I think that technically they should have been grounded. It's kind of like a bank that's too big to fail, the dislocations that would have been caused. But the FAA should have a very tight and a very aggressive program to retrofit those 737's in order to allow them to remain in the sky, and it has not done that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Burnett, we have limited time, but what about this overall problem of rapid growth of companies like ValuJet, low-cost, rapid growth aircraft--airline companies?
JAMES BURNETT: I think rapid growth and mergers are--is a risk factor in aviation. I think the FAA should do very intensive monitoring under these situations. I hope that they have learned that lesson now but remember the monitoring they did of ValuJet detected some of these problems. It was the failure at the upper levels of the FAA to act upon it; that led us to this situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Goldfarb, just overall, the problem of airlines growing so quickly, is that a real problem right now?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Absolutely. I mean, it is to the extent that it's not opening a Starbucks; that an airline has to show that it has evidence of the right managerial capability and has deep enough pockets so that they don't have to cut the corners. I agree with Jim, so they don't have to cut the corners on safety when they're trying to provide low fares to the American people. So I would agree with that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.