A Call for FAA to Change, From Ground Up
Focus on safety would require a major shift for airline watchdog
The proposed revamping of America's airline watchdog agency is an important step in helping to restore credibility with the flying public.
But analysts say it will take more than a shift on paper to reorient the agency to focus solely on safety. It will also take a change of culture.
Most applaud Tuesday's announcement by Transportation Secretary Federico Pea urging Congress to change the Federal Aviation Administration's dual mandate of promoting air travel and regulating airline safety. The reform, Mr. Pea said, will give the FAA "a single primary mission: safety."
But others who monitor the aviation industry note that the agency's predilection for promoting new airlines, such as ValuJet, extends to top levels of the FAA and its parent Department of Transportation. As a result, concentrating solely on safety will be a dramatic shift for an agency that, critics say, has in recent years placed strong emphasis on promotion.
They note that FAA administrator David Hinson was formerly chief executive officer of a start-up, low-cost carrier, Midway Airlines.
"Part of the discussion in Washington is whether [Hinson], whose plus when he came to the job was that he understood what airlines needed, bent over backwards to give the new characters a start," says John Strong, business professor at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., and co-author of "Why Airplanes Crash."
A DOT report issued in April - just two weeks before ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades - highlights the FAA's commitment to promoting low-cost air travel.
Hailing the DOT's accomplishments to encourage new entries in the industry, Pea said that since early 1993 the DOT certified 39 new jet airlines, including 20 passenger operators. "Today, 1 of every 7 passengers flies because of low-fare airlines....," he said April 23. "I can't think of many mature industries where new players enlarge the market by one-seventh."
"This department has encouraged new entries," Pea continued. "We have an office that assists applicants through the certification process."
The tremendous growth of low-cost carriers, in the end, has pointed up the agency's trouble with wearing two hats. While the FAA encouraged this growth, it has not been able to keep up with monitoring the new carriers, experts say.
Airline experts agree that splitting the agency's roles can only help the industry. "This is a positive step," says Marty Salsen of the International Airline Passengers Association. "The FAA should be strictly [oriented toward] safety and not be responsible for the promotion of the airline industry."
Most countries, such as Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have already split the functions of their oversight agencies.
"The places that still look like our system - unified under one umbrella - are Russia and China," Strong says.
The FAA has long had a reputation for being tough on start-up airlines, but it has basically entrusted "ongoing safety and soundness to the carrier," he adds.
Those carriers have done an overwhelmingly good job, experts say. But the FAA has not been able to keep up with the growth rate in recent years. The agency has 2,500 inspectors who are responsible for the oversight of all airlines - and it has announced no plans to add inspectors.
The ValuJet crash, and later revelations that FAA inspectors had previously documented problems with the airline, led the DOT to reevaluate the FAA and make the announced changes.
Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Travel, said he is disappointed with the FAA's handling of the ValuJet investigation.
"I have become deeply troubled by numerous FAA internal reports on ValuJet," Senator Pressler said, "which seem to raise very serious questions as to whether the FAA acted expeditiously and thoroughly." He has scheduled a June 27 hearing on the FAA's activities.
The FAA grounded ValuJet Monday, after the crash prompted a comprehensive 30-day review. But many wonder why it took the agency so long. The FAA had two inspection reports - in February and early May - indicating the carrier had problems and should be made to go through a recertification process.
The FAA is also planning to step up oversight of airlines' training, maintenance, and repairs, focusing primarily on contractors that supply these services. Low-cost, start-up carriers are the primary users of outside contractors.