Last week's tragic ValuJet DC-9 crash in Florida has focused new attention on the competence of the Washington-based bureaucracy responsible for the safety of the nation's skies: the Federal Aviation Administration.
In recent years, the FAA has struggled to overcome persistant problems with the training and management of its corps of airline safety inspectors, according to critics. At the same time it's been hit by budget cuts that have shrunk its staff by 10 percent - even as American air traffic continues to increase.
In fact, the FAA is involved in something of a sprint to improve aviation safety. Passenger traffic could double over the next 12 years, by some estimates. Unless the air accident rate can be reduced, the overall number of catastrophic crashes will sharply increase.
"This is a race against time where failure is not an option," said FAA administrator David R. HInson at an aviation symposium last month. "For failure would gravely undermine public confidence in the safety of air travel and threaten the growth prospects of the aviation industry."
As yet investigators have not determined the cause of the ValueJet accident. It could be months before a careful review of the crash evidence leads them to a theory of what happened Sunday, when a DC-9 suddenly plummeted into the Florida Everglades.
As of this writing, investigators were looking at a sudden increase in cabin pressure that occurred shortly after takeoff from Miami. This increase suggests the plane experienced an interior explosion. The plane's forward cargo hold was carrying a load of airline oxygen generators and spare aircraft tires, but investigators at the scene declined to speculate as to whether this cargo could have been an explosion's cause.
As always after a highly visible airline disaster, it's important to put the risks of air travel in context, experts say. They point out that the total number of fatalities suffered in US aviation since the Wright brothers' first flight equals only four month's toll on US highways.
Nor has airline deregulation and the growth in new air carriers caused travel to become more dangerous, statistically speaking. Since deregulation in the 1970s and '80s the rate of accidents has continued to decline, according to a General Accounting Office study released last month. The accident rate for 1994, at 0.004 incidents per million aircraft miles flown, is half the figure for 1978.
Even critics of the airline industry concede that it is very safe to fly in the United States. "The margin of accidents is so incredibly small," says Paul Dempsey of the transportation law program at the University of Denver. "Statistically, it's hard to show that there's any significant safety problem in the United States."
But every airline "hull loss" crash is a highly visible tragedy that can affect hundreds of families, while provoking fear in further millions. Each accident is one too many, say experts - and that's where the FAA comes in.
The FAA's 2,500 safety inspectors are responsible for checking the airworthiness of over 7,300 airline aircraft, as well as 11,000 charter planes and the almost 200,000 general aviation aircraft in the US.
Not everyone thinks the inspection job is one the FAA does well. In recent days, the agency's most visible critic has been Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Fackler Schiavo. In a Newsweek article, Ms. Schiavo charged among other things that FAA inspectors just look at whatever planes happen along - meaning some might be checked 200 times in one year, and others none.
At a recent congressional hearing, an anonymous FAA employee testifying from behind a screen said inspectors didn't get enough training. A similarly hidden airline consultant said the FAA looked at paperwork, not planes, and that inspectors were routinely fooled by airline attempts to hide problems.
The GAO has complained about FAA training for years. In recent congressional testimony, a GAO official said inspectors still don't always learn the proper skills to deal with the aircraft they are assigned. Since 1993, the FAA's budget for technical training has been reduced 42 percent, said the GAO's associate director for transportation, Gerald Dillingham.
Furthermore, a new FAA computer system intended to target airline safety problems and focus inspector resources is troubled by inaccurate data entries. The GAO found one computer entry indicating an inspection that hadn't occurred on a type of aircraft the airline in question didn't even fly.
Most crashes are the result of human error, not equipment failure due to lack of maintenance, or some other cause that might be linked to lack of oversight. Still, the National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 48 air accidents over the last 11 years could have been linked to defects of federal surveillance.
The FAA "is charged with a very complex task," says Mike Overly, editor of the Ohio-based Aviation Safety Monitor. "They have in their ranks the talent to complete this task, but I am not sure they have the organization to complete this task or the charter to complete this task."
Hinson wins good marks for his improvement efforts, even among critics. Hinson told Congress on Tuesday that he is moving "aggressively" to respond to the implications of the ValuJet crash. A planned increase in inspector numbers will be carried out faster, he said, and more effort will be devoted to improving the computerized safety data system. Furthermore, Hinson said he'd asked for a training budget increase in 1997.
In years to come the FAA will have to have a new "paradigm" for aviation safety, its chief says. That means the agency will have to marshall its resources to decrease the rate of accidents per miles flown, not just the total number.
Currently, large US carriers average about one hull loss a year. Given the predicted growth in air travel, that number will soon climb to four, unless the rate figure can be reduced. "Since the [accident rate] is already so low, we're faced with the challenge of virtually eliminating major accidents altogether," said Hinson in a recent speech.
*Ron Scherer contributed to this report.