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Outside Contractor Issue: It’s Deja Vu Again for FAA

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and David Hinson, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, say last month’s crash of a ValuJet Airlines plane in the Florida Everglades has brought to light a “new” problem: the airline industry’s practice of using outside contractors rather than their own personnel to handle such sensitive jobs as airplane maintenance.

But 10 years ago, FAA safety official Anthony J. Broderick said the agency faced a “new” problem in the aviation industry: airlines that contracted out their maintenance.

“The proliferation of contract maintenance . . . has been difficult to deal with,” Broderick told a congressional subcommittee in March 1986.

This appears to underscore a widely held criticism of the FAA: that it fails to learn from its mistakes and often does not heed its own warnings until after an accident forces it into action. Although the cause of the May 11 ValuJet crash that killed 110 people has not yet been determined, FAA documents that have since surfaced appear to suggest that agency officials knew enough about ValuJet operations to be concerned.

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“It’s like deja vu all over again,” says former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James Burnett.

It was Broderick--ousted by the FAA on Tuesday in the wake of the ValuJet controversy--who told Congress 10 years ago that the “innovation” of airlines contracting out their maintenance duties was taxing the agency’s inspector force.

Yet Pena, with much fanfare, told a packed news conference Tuesday: “In many, many ways, the industry today is far more complex. . . . It used to be that airlines performed their own maintenance.”

At the same news conference, Hinson--who labeled airline contract maintenance as among “new trends"--said: “The FAA has seen firsthand that the complexity of oversight for contract maintenance and training calls for this agency to change the way it operates.”

“This is not a ‘new’ problem at all,” one congressional source said of the contract maintenance issue. “But that’s the way the FAA functions. They act like something’s a new problem . . . when they’ve known about it for years.”

Asked about Pena’s depiction of the issue as an emerging one when it was actually raised at least 10 years ago, Transportation Department spokesman Bill Schulz said: “It begs the question of what the FAA has been doing for the past decade.” He then referred further inquiries to the FAA.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the FAA issued a formal statement on the matter:

“There’s a big difference between what was happening in 1986 and the complete outsourcing of essential airline services that we are seeing in 1996,” the statement read. “While 10 years ago contracting out was a growing issue, it is not the kind of comprehensive outsourcing we have found in ValuJet.

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“ValuJet contracting out is virtually complete and, as of the accident date, included some 56 different vendors performing maintenance at 49 line stations and seven repair stations, in addition to a large number of other subcontractors.

“In 1986,” the agency’s statement continued, “it was largely an inspector workload issue, which, at the time, we addressed by adding additional inspectors. We are now seeing a trend where airlines are outsourcing airline maintenance and pilot training services, creating an operational problem. Those are the issues the agency is currently addressing.”

Indeed it was, in part, the amount of outsourcing in ValuJet’s operations that caught the attention of FAA inspectors months before the Miami crash. Their concern led them to ask whether the agency should monitor the fledgling but rapidly growing airline more closely.

Documents show that FAA inspectors raised other concerns about ValuJet as early as 1994. They included a lack of safety audit systems, critical maintenance deficiencies, high management turnover, incomplete manuals and poor record-keeping.

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According to an Oct. 28, 1994, FAA inspection report, ValuJet flew an airplane that was “not airworthy” that fall. The plane had a leaky hydraulic system that went unrepaired for nearly a month, documents show.

The same report also cited ValuJet for failing “to ensure” that contract maintenance work was being performed according to company guidelines and for not reporting--as the FAA requires--an incident in which a switch in a ValuJet plane exploded, releasing smoke into the cockpit.

In a Feb. 14 report prepared by FAA officials in Atlanta, where ValuJet is headquartered, one agency official concluded that the FAA’s monitoring of the airline “clearly shows some weaknesses.”

Critical airline operations “did not receive much attention” from the FAA, wrote the official, adding that the agency needed to step up its inspection “to ensure continued structural integrity of an aging fleet of DC-9 aircraft.” The official went on to recommend that ValuJet be required to repeat the certification process, a test all airlines must pass before the government allows them to go into business.

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Instead, the agency chose to conduct a 120-day review of ValuJet.

Two weeks later, in a follow-up letter to ValuJet President and Chief Operating Officer Lewis Jordan, three FAA officials from the Atlanta field office said they were concerned that “ValuJet is not meeting its duty to provide service with the highest possible degree of safety in the public interest.

“It appears,” the letter said, “that ValuJet does not have a structure in place to handle [its] rapid growth, and that [it] may have an organizational culture that is in conflict with operating to the highest possible degree of safety.”

Both FAA and ValuJet officials have stressed that the airline cooperated fully with the agency and addressed problems promptly. On Monday, ValuJet officials announced they had agreed with the FAA to suspend operations, even while saying they believed the move was unwarranted. In recent days, ValuJet officials have emphasized that the airline continues to work with the FAA and accident investigators; they say the airline plans to be flying again within a month.

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“The FAA spends a lot of money collecting data, looking for red flags,” said Burnett, the former NTSB chairman, “but then it doesn’t see the color red.”

While the cause of the ValuJet crash has focused on the possible explosion of oxygen canisters mistakenly placed in a cargo hold, federal accident investigators are also weighing whether FAA breakdowns in oversight of the airline helped spawn an environment in which carelessness could prevail.

As they reconstruct the wreckage and prepare for a hearing on the accident, investigators also want to know why the FAA did not ground ValuJet sooner. In addition, the Transportation Department’s inspector general has been investigating reports that the FAA went “easy” on ValuJet in an effort to help the 3-year-old airline get established.

Hinson has said that earlier grounding of the airline was not justified. But accident investigators and their congressional counterparts say the agency has forced at least four airlines from the air in recent years, some for lesser violations than those uncovered at ValuJet.

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Preparing for upcoming hearings, congressional investigators have collected evidence that raises questions about possible government boosterism of airlines, including a March statement by a transportation official. The official was quoted in Aviation Daily, a trade publication, as saying of low cost start-up airlines that it is “imperative for government to help see that new entrants have a real chance to enter, compete and succeed.”

Although FAA officials stress that the apparent cause of the ValuJet crash is unrelated to their prior concerns about ValuJet maintenance, one high-ranking NTSB official involved in the accident probe said he believed otherwise. Asked if he thought the ValuJet crash could have been prevented, the official responded: “I’m convinced that some good people at the FAA that are trying to do their jobs have been hindered for a number of reasons. That’s a yes. It need not have happened. The FAA did not listen to its own people.”

* VALUJET’S LESSON: Fast growth may have come at expense of safety. D1


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