SEEKING SAFER SKIES
MAY 13, 1996
Many have questioned the safety record ValuJet after one of its airplanes crashed in a Florida marsh, killing all 109 aboard. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration conducted a special safety inspection of the airline. David Hinson, FAA administrator, said travelers flying on ValuJet are safe, but Department of Transportation inspector general Mary Fackler Schiavo questioned the safety of ValuJet and other "off-brand" airlines. Click here for a Margaret Warner background report and interview about the crash.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We now get two perspectives on the crash and the question of airline safety. First we turn to David Hinson, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration. Thank you for being with us, Mr. Hinson.
DAVID HINSON, Federal Aviation Administration: Yes, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: First of all, do you have anything to add to that report?
DAVID HINSON: Well, I was pleased, of course, that they were able to pull from the water apparently one of the recorders that we're looking for. We're also looking for another one, and I don't know whether this is the flight data recorder, which records the parameters of the airplane, or the voice recorder, which records the conversations in the cockpit through the flight attendants in the back of the airplane. In any case, these recorders have a small sonar emitting device about the size of a D-cell battery that will last for 30 days, and I'm sure that's what the Navy's using to help them find them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The FAA has had some very tough cases before, I know, but this has got to be one of the toughest.
DAVID HINSON: Well, I've, in my career, been to several accidents, and Mr. Francis, who is the senior investigator on site, and I talked yesterday. Sec. Pena and I toured the site yesterday by helicopter and met with members of the families yesterday afternoon, and that was a very difficult chore on our part but very necessary. We expressed the President's concern to them about this tragedy. This whole episode will be very difficult for the NTSB to recover with respect--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The National Transportation Safety Board.
DAVID HINSON: Yes. The National Transportation Safety Board, I'm sorry, and it is a very--from an engineering perspective--a very difficult site. And I can tell you when I was there yesterday, I was very impressed with the rescue efforts that are underway by Dade County, and now today by the NTSB, the Army Corps of Engineers, and a host of others who are helping.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Have you learned anything new about what might have happened?
DAVID HINSON: No. Of course, the accident investigation is under the purview of the NTSB. They really own the accident. The FAA provides technical support, if asked, and we do that on occasion, so we work closely with them. But the board owns the accident.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's talk about ValuJet. They had been under investigation--
DAVID HINSON: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --because of a series of mishaps, including an explosion and a fire which injured a stewardess and several people inside the jet. Could you talk to us a bit about the problems they'd had and what happened--what you found in the investigation.
DAVID HINSON: Yes. ValuJet is a very rapidly growing airline that started operating in late 1993 and today has approximately 50 airplanes. They've been financially very successful and have carried, to date, about 10 million passengers. We look at ValuJet just like we look at every other airline all of the time; however, in January of this year, as the Secretary said at the outset of the show, they experienced four operational difficulties. Our inspectors are very sensitive to this, and when they see something like this, they sit down and make a decision, and in this case, said, look, ValuJet may not be having any problems, but, on the other hand, they may, so let's take a closer look.
So we instigated a special inspection starting in February that was to last 120 days. During that 120-day period, we did a special inspection, seven days, that was especially a focus on their daily operations. We brought in 11 inspectors from the outside, that is to say not assigned to ValuJet, so we had a fresh look, and in that special inspection, we did turn up some issues that we thought the airline should deal with but none which would be disqualifying or particularly unsafe. The airline responded. They addressed those issues. We were to end our inspection on June the 16th. The tragedy on Saturday has caused us to reassess that, and the Secretary and I both agree that we should expand and broaden the investigation that was underway so that we go back and reassure the American public that ValuJet is, in fact, a safe airline.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the rapid growth of ValuJet? It went from a couple of airplanes to fifty-two or fifty-one, I believe, in, what, two or three years?
DAVID HINSON: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Isn't it very difficult for, for even a very well-run company to keep up with that rapid growth?
DAVID HINSON: Well, it would be if they were starting without experienced people, but our regulations require that the management of an airline be experienced. And they are. They were fortunate to be able to hire a number of airline pilots who have been furloughed from other carriers or carriers that have ceased operation. Their initial cadre of pilots was highly experienced in the twelve to fifteen thousand hour area, and so they have a fairly highly experienced group of pilots, similar with mechanics; nevertheless, we think that we need to look at it a little bit closer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about "off brand" airlines in general, these cheaper airlines? There were--there was testimony in a Senate subcommittee late last month about various companies, Aero Air, ValuJet, Ameriflight of Burbank, all offering discounted air fares and all, according to at least some of the testimony, having some safety problems. What do you think about that?
DAVID HINSON: Well, let me start with sort of the regulatory framework, if I may. From the FAA's perspective, the price of a ticket is irrelevant. If you carry passengers in airline service in the United States, you have to meet our safety requirements. It is the same for any airline, large, small, high price, low price. That whole issue is irrelevant from our perspective. Now, let me say, for example, that the low cost airline in the world is considered to be Southwest. They have flown for 25 years without a fatality. There really is no strong correlation between the fact that an airline is small or "low cost" in safety and, indeed, all of the airlines must meet our requirements.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you know that that same testimony an FAA inspector testifying from behind a screen and not using his real name said that he'd actually been asked to inspect planes, that he'd never been trained, that he didn't even know, he didn't even know in one case he said how to open the door to get on the plane. What--how do you respond to the kinds of criticisms that have come out about the FAA inspection process?
DAVID HINSON: One of the things that the Secretary and I've tried to do since we came to Washington with the President is to redirect the FAA, and I accept some of those criticisms as they are, and we have worked very hard to address those issues. The IG's been quite helpful in her criticisms, strange as that may sound, to help us find the right solutions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The inspector general.
DAVID HINSON: Yes. And we are actually changing a number of things that we're doing, and in fact, last summer, I commissioned a study by a consulting firm called Challenge 2000 which basically brought in experts from all over, looking at the FAA to say how do we want to manage certification and regulation at the turn of the century? That study will be made public Thursday, coincidental with this tragedy, but it is giving us some good direction.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much, Mr. Hinson.
DAVID HINSON: You're welcome.