BOSTON — The federal watchdog agency charged with regulating airline safety is baring its teeth.
The agency's shutdown of ValuJet Airlines this week - the first ever of a major airline - signals a new aggressiveness within the Federal Aviation Administration. The closure, an action expected to ground ValuJet at least for the time being - comes in the wake of charges that the FAA's own investigations of the airline were lax.
Industry sources say other major airlines could face closer scrutiny, partly as a result of an expected FAA shakeup. But the smaller, low-cost carriers are likely to be most affected, they say.
"The FAA has to step up its interactions with those kinds of airlines," Dennis Hitchcock, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "I would expect you would see even greater [FAA] involvement in the future, and it's about time."
FAA administrator David Hinson, in a round of television programs yesterday, said that the FAA was "lax" in its investigation and certification of ValuJet and that he intended to take corrective action. The agency was expected to announce the retirement of Anthony Broderick, associate administrator for regulation and certification. His job combined the certification of aircraft as safe to fly and the regulation of airline operations. The FAA is likely to separate the two functions after Mr. Broderick's departure.
Experts say that a fundamental problem at the FAA is how to fulfill the agency's dual mandate of regulating airline safety and, at the same time, promoting air travel. "It's clear that you need to separate the responsibility for the two missions," says Paul Light, author of "Monitoring Government." "Either you're going to favor air safety, making it more difficult for new airlines to enter the business, or you're going to favor more access ... and it's going to be difficult to maintain safety."
But some analysts say the watchdog agency will not be easily reformed - and that the FAA's attempt to put on a stronger, tougher face doesn't mean the airline industry will be any safer.
"I have never seen a single incident ... where an FAA inspector discovered or prevented a threatening situation," says Morten Beyer, president of Morten Beyer Associates, an aviation consulting firm in Washington. "Most of the day-to-day inspection ... is nothing but a paper chase."
The FAA started a special 120-day review of ValuJet last February. On May 12, the day after a ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard, the FAA expanded its investigation.
Critics argue that FAA investigators early on reported problems with the low-cost carrier that should have been more thoroughly investigated and acted upon.
"It certainly appears there was a great deal of cause for the kinds of investigations [the FAA] was conducting," Mr. Hitchcock says. "ValuJet grew very quickly, had a very scattered maintenance operation, and was certainly not following standard operational procedures that the other major airlines follow."
The US Department of Transportation, parent of the FAA, has publicly criticized the FAA for its hit-and-miss inspection of ValuJet. Mary Schiavo, the DOT's inspector general, said immediately after the ValuJet crash that she had already stopped flying on the airline because of problems the FAA identified in February.
But both Mr. Hinson and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said after that crash that ValuJet was safe to fly.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska is currently reviewing Ms. Schiavo's statements and reports about the source of her information and whether she properly passed that information on to Mr. Pena and Hinson. Senator Stevens, chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, has not yet reached any conclusions, according to Mitch Rose, the senator's spokesman.
* Staff writer Shelley Donald Coolidge contributed to this report.