SEEKING SAFER SKIES
MAY 13, 1996
Department of Transportion Inspector General Mary Fackler Schiavo wrote in an article for Newsweek last week questioning the safety of ValuJet. She also critized the Federal Aviation Administration's inspection procedures. While not denying that improves could be make, FAA administrator David Hinson defended his agency's inspection program.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now for more on this we got to Mary Fackler Schiavo, the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation. She is responsible for auditing and reviewing all department activities, including those with the Federal Aviation Administration. Thank you for being with us.
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO, Inspector General, Transportation Department: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you tell us, please, what your view is of ValuJet, having looked at the evidence of the various mishaps, the fire, there were a couple of runway -- overshootings of runways. What do you think about ValuJet?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, I'll tell you, I got into this in a very serendipitous way, and that is that an article appeared which had worked on for Newsweek which was finished at 11:40 AM on Saturday raising a number of concerns about flying in the U.S., and of course, the crash occurred after 2 o'clock in the afternoon, so I was quite concerned about that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you raised some questions about ValuJet. You said, in fact, that you wouldn't fly ValuJet.
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, actually, the first time I said that was on February 7th in 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, not because they had not been credited their safety creditation but because of the number of incidents, and on that day we started asking questions of the FAA about ValuJet on February 20th, and of course, the FAA started this special emphasis review.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you feel that the FAA investigation that took place--there have been--there was one a couple of years ago--do you feel those investigations have been thorough?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, there's continuing investigations by their maintenance inspector. Then there was the Nasive inspection in the fall of '95, and then there was a special emphasis inspection. There were things found in the special emphasis inspection that were not uncovered by the Nasive inspection and that were not touched upon by the regular inspector inspections. And since this current inspection is ongoing and has been the most critical to date it remains to be seen what will come out of it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you say things found, what are you referring to?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Oh, there were a number of issues raised, such as things about pilot experience and qualifications, about maintenance issues, and about the number of incidents.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are you saying that you feel, given the number of incidents and what was found in inspections, that ValuJet should have been closed down? If you wouldn't ride on it yourself--
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, my comments need to be taken in context. I am not the entity that makes the decision on whether an airline is safe to fly. I'm just saying that in my own experience, given all that I've seen -- and remember, my job is to find problems in the Department of Transportation, and people always ask me, with all the problems that you find, don't you have difficulty flying, and the fact of the matter is, I do. The problems I have found have taken a toll on me over the years, and I am concerned, which is why I said, and why we started asking questions about the FAA -- that the number of incidents was too great for me in my book, and that caused me concern.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then you've been critical overall of FAA inspections. Could you talk to us about that, please.
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Yes. And that started shortly after I commenced my tenure five and a half years ago. The first major review that we completed was on FAA inspections. This was back in 1990-1991, and we had a number of criticisms of their inspection. In fact, we questioned whether their inspections were really accomplishing anything for many reasons, but particularly because they didn't target and check the problems. They didn't use their resources to target the problem areas, and they did not target and track problems within the system. In fact, another study we did on what FAA does with maintenance and design problems, for some of the problems we found they literally fell into a black hole, and I was greatly troubled by that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean by that, black hole?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, we found that they did not use service difficulty reports for tracking of problem trends.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry. What does that mean?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, when somebody reports a problem with a plane or an airline, you might think that the FAA would have a program to take all of these problem findings into a system where they would chart out and do projections to find where the problems are. We found that there was no use made of trend analysis. They just didn't do it, and that was one of the things of which we were very critical.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have concerns about the safety of the other discount airlines, "the off-brand" airlines, as they're sometimes called?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Curiously, there's a wide, a wide discrepancy in the safety rates of the airlines, and the three of the low-cost carriers seem to account for a disproportionate number of the incidents, at least of the planes that the Department--airlines that the Department was tracking, and if you leave Southwest Airlines in the mix as a discount carrier, the rates with the majors are comparable, but if you take Southwest out, which has a great--perfect track record, if you take them out, then the accident rate for the low-cost carriers is significantly greater, many times greater than the majors.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What were the three that you were thinking of?
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Well, given the unbelievable furor over simply mentioning that I did not care -- based on the -- the number of incidents to fly, umm, ValuJet, I guess I will leave it for others to discover what the other three are, and I'm sure there will be lots of requests for that to the Department.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you say to those who say that even looking at these figures, at the figures you're talking about, that air travel is by far, by far the safest way to travel, and that you are hyping this a little bit, that --
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Oh, well, that's why I wrote the article. My job is to find problems, and after a while, finding problem after problem, it takes a toll even on me, and so I am a concerned flier, and I think everybody who works with me knows that. And so I wrote the article and, and the timing is very sad, but I wrote the article to discuss what I do and just because an airline passes, just because you pass the safety inspection, for me, that's not good enough. I want to be on the airline that got an "A," and that's why I wrote the article, and, in fact, to tell people that I fly all the time -- even though I'm concerned -- because I just out of habit and just to make myself feel better try to fly on the ones with the best records, and it takes some digging, but, for example, my concerns about ValuJet, which I used to raise the February 7th concerns, I actually got from the media. The Cleveland Plain Dealer had reported them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mrs. Schiavo, thank you very much for being with us.
MARY FACKLER SCHIAVO: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hinson, what about these criticisms? The FAA's come under some attack in the last couple of months.
DAVID HINSON: Well, indeed, we have. We have worked very hard since the President asked me to join his administration here to sort of reshape the FAA. A number of the problems that Mary refers to are problems that the Secretary and I inherited, and we've been trying to deal with and work through.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What had caused these problems, if you inherited them?
DAVID HINSON: Well, how much time do we have?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, just briefly.
DAVID HINSON: Well, there's a long tenure of--a long list of issues that go way back. First, my predecessors, we had a rapid turnover of FAA administrators, one every 18 months, long periods with nobody in the job at all, and uh--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I understand.
DAVID HINSON: -- a whole host of issues like that. So let me say that, uh, I don't agree with everything that Mary said, but I do agree with some of the things that she said, and we're working very hard to address those issues.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you think right now that if people are going to some of these airlines, the FAA has inspected them and they are safe?
DAVID HINSON: Well, they are, indeed, and so is ValuJet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. What are the figures on--give us some sense of the safety record of American Airlines.
DAVID HINSON: Well, I mean, it's exceptionally safe. Umm, one of the statistics that I cite occasionally as people who create odds would tell you that in order to be in a fatal accident on a scheduled U.S. air carrier, you'd have to fly every day two hours for five thousand years to statistically be involved in an accident. Those are pretty good odds. And we are the most professional country in terms of our civil aviation in the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the criticism some people have made that the FAA is in the position of both promoting airline travel and promoting all these new airlines because they -- after deregulation, competition was considered a good thing, but you're also regulating them?
DAVID HINSON: Yes. Well, this, this idea and the question about a dual mandate is because a lot of people do not understand what the Congress intended. When the Congress said the FAA should promote aviation, here's what they meant. We should have a reasonable and skillfully drawn regulatory framework within which aviation can flourish. We should provide an aviation infrastructure, air traffic control, runways. We should do research and development to advance the state of the art. We do all of those things. When you put all of those in the context of promotion, you create an advancing aviation organization and industry, and we make sure it's safe. That is the payoff. In fact, they go together. They're really not separate at all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, Mr. Hinson, thank you for being with us.
DAVID HINSON: You're welcome.