May 14, 1996
KWAME HOLMAN: The flight data recorder from ValuJet 592 was recovered yesterday and flown to Washington for examination. Today at a press conference at the crash site in Florida, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Robert Francis said the preliminary findings were encouraging.
ROBERT FRANCIS, Vice Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board: There is good data on the recorder. I don't want to talk at this point about specifics because it's very preliminary and it's being refined and it's a pretty sophisticated operation.
KWAME HOLMAN: Search teams continue to work in quadrants around the crash site of the DC-9 looking for body parts and the voice cockpit recorder which officials hope will be found with the help of Navy sonar devices.
ROBERT FRANCIS: If the cockpit voice recorder pinger is functioning and if it's in the water, the sonar will pick it up. If, however, for some reason it's not working--battery failure or whatever it would be--obviously the sonar is not going to pick up the pinger. If also it's buried in mud, the recorder will not--the sonar will not pick up the pinger. We're operating on an assumption that certainly close to the flat data recorder would be a place that one could find it. On the other hand, we have large numbers of, of major parts from the tail of the aircraft where the recorders are located that are fairly, fairly far separated from where we found the flight data recorder. So we're going to be working on the access between, between those two.
KWAME HOLMAN: Divers have found small pieces of the jet, such as bundles of wires, which may prove important in determining why the plane crashed. But the going is slow and difficult.
LT. GLEN KAY, Metro Dade Police: It's a very trying experience. In addition to the heat and the conditions that the officers are in, they also will have to suit up, wear special gear, which elevates their body temperature. We're working on--as a result of that--they're working on a basis via half-hour rotation, to where they can only stay in the suits for a half hour. They have to come out, be de-contaminated and then rest for about a half hour, then go back in after the next crew goes in.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Washington, Federal Aviation Administrator David Hinson testified before the Senate Commerce Committee and defended his agency's ongoing review of ValuJet's performance.
DAVID HINSON: We will be examining the overall operations of the carrier, including an audit of its contracted repair facilities' quality control programs. We will observe the procedures and training of maintenance personnel. We will evaluate the effectiveness of the new technical support center, and our inspectors will conduct increased cockpit observations of crew resource management procedures, aircraft dispatch planning, and in-flight management.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, Hinson was bombarded with questions from the panel about the safety of ValuJet and the planes that fly.
SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, (R) Maine: It has been reported that this plane that was involved in the crash on Saturday had returned to the terminal seven times. When do you determine when it's necessary to ground a plane because of its numerous returns to a terminal? Is there a determination? Do you make a determination in that regard?
DAVID HINSON: No airplane is allowed to leave the gate or fly unless it is airworthy, and that airworthiness is determined by the appropriate maintenance personnel of the air carrier, and the captain must also--is required not to accept and fly an airplane that is not airworthy. I personally reviewed all seven incidents that were alluded to in the paper just because I was curious as well. And as an experienced airline person, I did not find any of those unusual or particularly hazardous. I just thought they were mechanical problems that the crew elected to go back and have fixed.
SEN. WENDELL FORD, (D) Kentucky: Are low cost carriers basically safe to fly on?
DAVID HINSON: The cost of a ticket that an airline charges is irrelevant to the FAA. How an airline positions itself economically is their business. But what is relevant to us is that they all meet the same safety standard, and we apply our work force and our resources to that end.
SEN. LARRY PRESSLER, Chairman, Commerce Committee: Is the DC-9 a safe aircraft if it's twenty-nine or thirty years old, and are there any differences in characteristics here if they get into an emergency situation?
DAVID HINSON: No, there's no difference. They're all safe.
SEN. RON WYDEN, (D) Oregon: Mr. Hinson, I think what troubles me most about what the inspector general has said with respect to safety inspection--
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators also grilled Hinson about recent charges from the Department of Transportation inspector general that flying ValuJet simply isn't safe. Mary Schiavo appeared on the NewsHour last night.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you raised some questions about ValuJet. You said, in fact, that you wouldn't fly ValuJet.
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO, Inspector General, Transportation Department: (May 13) Well, actually, the first time I said that was on February 7th at a meeting in my office with my deputy inspector general, Mario Lauro, and others present. I said I wouldn't get on the airline because of the number of incidents that have been reported.
SEN. RON WYDEN: She's saying that to a great extent the system is sort of hit and miss, the system is essentially random. She goes to the extent of saying that many inspectors basically run an inspection program that has 'em just inspecting whatever goes by. Is that what goes on--
DAVID HINSON: No.
SEN. RON WYDEN: --and, if so, do you agree with that?
DAVID HINSON: No, sir. Sen. Wyden, I strongly take exception to her comments. We have a very professional, highly dedicated, organized, and efficient inspector work force that do their job day in and day out. And when we say an airline is safe to fly, it is safe to fly. There is no gray area. And I want to give you one statistic which I think makes the case and you really don't have to look any further. If we had the same accident rate today that we had in 1960 when many of us were flying around on the airlines and thought it was a safe environment, if we had the same accident rate for 121 carriers, last year we would have experienced 242 major air carrier accidents, 33 fatal, one every ten days. Now obviously something has happened in the 36 ensuing years. That safety curve is irrefutable evidence that the FAA, the industry, the pilots, the mechanics, the air traffic controllers, everybody involved, are doing a very good job.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today an aide to Schiavo said her office would investigate charges that inspectors were directed to go soft on ValuJet. At the hearing, Republican Ted Stevens objected to Schiavo's public airing of her findings.
SEN. TED STEVENS, (R) Alaska: I suggest to you the President has the right to remove an inspector general for dereliction of duty, and you and the Secretary should examine into that, because it is not a functioning inspector general to go public and try to destroy confidence in our airline safety system, and I think she did.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, as part of an effort to ensure public confidence, the Transportation Department announced today 91 new air safety inspectors will be on the job by the end of July, two months ahead of schedule.