A Year After ValuJet Crash, Public Pushes Airline Safety

Few people have forgotten the images of ValuJet Flight 592 after it plunged into the Florida Everglades a year ago this month, killing all on board.

But that's a good thing, many airline industry experts say.

"Public awareness has increased on issues of air safety," says Chris Witkowski, director of air safety and health for the Washington-based Association of Flight Attendants.

Before ValuJet, he says, it was typical for the public to forget about an airline accident a week or two after it happened. But the Florida crash, and the explosion last July of TWA Flight 800, have brought heightened and enduring public scrutiny of the entire airline industry.

That public focus has helped force a number of changes - from the way the Federal Aviation Administration operates to new regulations for the certification and oversight of low-cost, start-up airlines. In addition, President Clinton tapped Vice President Al Gore to head up a public commission on airline safety and security.

"The more we learn, the safer we get," says Aaron Gellman, director of Northwestern University's Transportation Center in Chicago. "We learn a great deal through the experience of building and maintaining aircraft, and also, unfortunately, from mishaps."

In addition to grounding ValuJet for an intense inspection period, the FAA has since instituted several new regulations to:

*Raise safety standards for airlines that use outside contractors for maintenance or training.

*Ban the shipment of oxygen generators on passenger planes.

*Strengthen the certification and oversight of new airlines.

*Set in motion the process to require fire-detection and suppression systems to be installed in commercial aircraft cargo holds.

Most experts agree that the new regulations - particularly for outsourced maintenance - were needed and are beneficial. One of ValuJet's subcontractors, for example, incorrectly packaged the oxygen canisters for shipment on Flight 592. "[Maintenance oversight] is getting deservedly greater attention in the wake of ... ValuJet," says Clint Oster, a business professor at Indiana University, Bloomington.

The extra attention has probably made the so-called discount airlines safer today than they were before the ValuJet crash.

But some experts are concerned that the public pressure has pushed the FAA to focus too much attention on low-cost carriers at the expense of watching the more established airlines.

"There is nothing inherently unsafe about being low-cost," says Dr. Oster, who co-authored the book, "Why Airplanes Crash." "If you look at ValuJet, you don't see anything in the things that made them low-cost that made them unsafe. More so than low-cost, the FAA needs to pay attention to a carrier that is changing size rapidly."

In public hearings held in Miami last fall, the NTSB sharply criticized the FAA for its lax oversight of the fastest-growing airline in history. It also said that if the FAA had adopted the 1988 NTSB recommendation that fire detection devices be placed in aircraft cargo holds, the ValuJet accident may have been prevented.

In the wake of ValuJet, the FAA has instituted changes and has itself been changed. Congress last year removed a clause in the FAA's mandate that called for the FAA to promote air travel as well as to regulate air safety. Still, the FAA must continue to complete a cost-benefit analysis for every rule it makes.

Such analysis contributes to the inherently slow pace of safety reform. The rules for smoke detectors and fire-suppression systems, for example, have yet to be written. And even though some 25 major airlines - in tandem with Mr. Gore and his safety commission - announced last December that they would voluntarily install the devices, they don't expect to begin until October.

"They wanted to get the publicity benefit immediately," says Morten Beyer, a McLean, Va.-based consultant who specializes in helping ailing airlines.

The public scrutiny has forced new safety measures, but some steps may be at the expense of correcting more serious problems. "Fires in cargo holds have not been on anybody's top 10 list of problems. And they probably shouldn't be," says Oster.

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