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1996 | 06 | 19 | Articles | The Wall Street Journal | Business | Transportation | Politics
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The Wall Street Journal
June 19, 1996
FAA's Flaws Exposed In ValuJet Shutdown; Agency's Top Inspection Official Submits for Early Retirement

How did federal air safety regulators fail so badly?

The Federal Aviation Administration’s shutdown of ValuJet Airlines — less than six weeks after FAA officials had insisted that the airline was safe — has raised questions about the agency’s ability to ensure the safety of the U.S. airline industry. Those concerns led Tuesday to a major personnel shakeup at the agency, a tightening of inspection rules and a plea by Transportation Secretary Federico Pena for Congress to rewrite the agency’s historic mandate that requires it to promote as well as police the aviation industry.

"There should never be another question about the top priority of the FAA," Mr. Pena said at a news conference called to deflect criticism of the agency. His comments made it seem likely that the fallout from the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 into the Florida Everglades on May 11, killing all 110 people on board, could lead to a radical change in the way the FAA regulates the airline industry.

Mr. Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson conceded that the agency failed to heed earlier indications of potential safety problems at the upstart, low-fare airline. Mr. Hinson acknowledged that the FAA didn’t adequately gauge ValuJet’s airworthiness, saying, "We bear some responsibilities in this case."

For one thing, Mr. Pena said that the agency didn’t adequately monitor the growing industry trend of having maintenance work done by independent contractors, known as outsourcing. FAA investigations concluded that the practice led to a litany of safety concerns at ValuJet. As a result, Mr. Hinson said the agency would boost its inspections of airlines that use outside contractors to conduct their maintenance operations.

The turmoil at the FAA also led to a high-level personnel shakeup. The agency’s top inspection official, Anthony J. Broderick, long-time FAA associate administrator for regulation and certification, submitted a letter to Mr. Hinson taking early retirement. In his letter, Mr. Broderick said the agency needed to repair its public image and he believed his departure could help accomplish that.

"The events of the past weeks mandate that you make major visible changes to improve the public confidence in the safety of our air transportation system and the quality of FAA oversight of the airlines. My leaving will provide you with the maximum amount of flexibility to make those changes," he wrote.

Mr. Pena’s call to rewrite the FAA’s basic mandate could bring even more changes. Since it was chartered in 1958, the agency, which is part of the Department of Transportation, has had the sometimes contradictory mission of ensuring safety as well as promoting air travel. Over the years, that dual mandate has prompted the FAA to oppose numerous safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, concluding that the changes would be too costly for airlines and aircraft makers.

Critics say that conflict was illustrated vividly the day after the ValuJet crash when Messrs. Pena and Hinson stood before television cameras and attested to the airline’s safety. Mr. Pena said Tuesday he is urging Congress to change the FAA charter so that it has only one mission: regulating safety.

ValuJet said there was no evidence that maintenance was to blame for the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board suspects that oxygen canisters being carried illegally in the plane’s cargo hold may have caught fire minutes after takeoff from Miami International Airport. But its official report on the cause of the crash won’t be ready for months.

Meanwhile, the FAA appears to have been deeply divided over how tough to be on ValuJet. As late as last Thursday, FAA officials in Atlanta and three key investigators were negotiating with ValuJet chief executive Lewis Jordan to trim the airline’s fleet of aging aircraft so that the carrier could have better control over maintenance. At that point, there was no discussion of a shutdown, according to people involved with the talks.

Over the weekend, however, two officials from the FAA headquarters in Washington flew to Atlanta to review the inspection records. After a series of weekend meetings, the regulatory officials recommended that Mr. Hinson give ValuJet an ultimatum: Shut down voluntarily or be shut down.

At about 1:30 p.m. Monday, Messrs. Hinson and Pena met at the White House with Clinton administration officials, including chief of staff Leon Panetta and senior presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, who had been sharply critical of their earlier public assurances that ValuJet was safe. A White House official said Clinton political advisers didn’t press the transportation officials to shut down the airline.

But about an hour after that meeting began, FAA officials in Atlanta presented the ultimatum to a stunned Mr. Jordan, according to people familiar with that meeting. ValuJet announced it would temporarily suspend flights but called the FAA’s action "grossly unfair" because it said it had been denied the opportunity to respond to the agency’s concerns.

The chain of events prompted a round of criticism of the FAA on Capitol Hill. Republican Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, blasted the FAA for its oversight of ValuJet safety, particularly because a string of internal agency documents chronicled problems at the carrier long before the crash.

Jeff Nelligan, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the FAA, said it was "absolutely brazen" for Mr. Pena to blame the agency’s problems on its dual mandate. "This is passing the buck," Mr. Nelligan said. "They are scrambling over there and it’s apparent to all."

The FAA admits that its oversight capabilities haven’t kept pace with the explosive growth of new airlines in recent years. Mr. Pena has trumpeted the rise of low-cost carriers, including ValuJet, as a major victory for the Clinton administration and a boon for the flying public. Asked at a briefing about President Clinton’s expressed concern about the quality of the FAA’s safety oversight, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, "The President wants to make sure we do everything, redouble and recheck everything, that it is absolutely the safest system on Earth."

– Stewart Ugelow and Bridget O’Brian contributed to this article.