Questions for the FAA

In the immediate aftermath of the May 11 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades, Transportation Secretary Federico Pea and Federal Aviation Administrator David Hinson were quick to assure the public that ValuJet planes were safe to fly. So their sudden turnaround last week to shut down the airline raises a lot of questions about just how thorough the FAA was in its inspections and investigation.

The secretary and the administrator now have a credibility problem. Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has called hearings for Thursday to look into FAA's handling of the matter. He will ask, among other things, why Mr. Hinson assured the committee on May 14 that ValuJet was safe when FAA internal documents showed it was anything but:

*A Feb. 14 FAA report recommended consideration of "an immediate ... re-certification of this airline," citing "the absence of adequate policies and procedures for the maintenance personnel to follow." It noted "an absence of engine trend monitoring data" and a possibly inadequate airworthiness-maintenance program using "reliability based procedures without a reliability program."

*A May 2 FAA draft report indicated ValuJet had an unusually high number of air-safety incidents.

*A May 6 FAA preliminary draft report noted more than 100 safety violations at ValuJet.

Hinson may have been unaware of these reports. But who at the FAA knew of them? Does their existence have anything to do with the sacrifice last week of Anthony Broderick, the FAA's top safety official? And was his departure justified, or is he being made a scapegoat for others' mistakes?

Mr. Pea's call to end FAA's dual mandate to promote air travel and ensure air safety is welcome, but by itself it will not solve the agency's problems. That will take wholesale changes in agency culture. While safety must come first, a cost/benefit analysis is needed before new rules are promulgated, to ensure that regulators don't run wild and issue mandates that drive up the cost of air travel and drive down the number of air passengers. More people driving at high speeds on interstate highways won't be safer.

Meanwhile, Pea has let it be known he won't be at the hearings, as he must represent the US at an international aviation meeting in Montreal. He should send someone else to Canada and testify in Washington.

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