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FAA Reform for Safer Skies

When any major problem with America’s airlines is brought to light, the public deserves to have the assurance that the Federal Aviation Administration is on top of the matter. There’s little evidence of such federal command in the aftermath of the ValuJet crash that killed 110 people last month, a crash in which the exact cause is yet to be determined.

Immediately after the accident, Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson declared ValuJet safe. However, it turns out that FAA inspections and investigations conducted in the months before (and as long ago as 1994) had uncovered ample cause for concern. After the May 11 tragedy in Florida’s Everglades, five weeks passed before the FAA grounded the airline.

Now, Pena and Hinson say, there is a “new” problem of airlines that cut costs by using outside contractors for maintenance, rather than their own personnel. What’s so new about this? Part of the ValuJet fallout this week was the news that the FAA’s longtime associate administrator for regulation and certification, Anthony J. Broderick, was being dumped. But it was Broderick, 10 years ago, who had tried to sound the alarm about the use of outside contractors, calling it an unexpected and troubling “innovation” of airline deregulation.

“The proliferation of contract maintenance . . . has been difficult to deal with,” Broderick told a congressional subcommittee in 1986. He added that it had stretched the FAA’s inspection capability. Wasn’t anyone listening?

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One thing that the FAA should do immediately is set strict limits on the number of outside contractors that can be used by any airline. The FAA says it will beef up its army of inspectors and its schedule of inspections. Fine. But this still would not be adequate for the industry’s fringes, where ValuJet was able to use as many as 56 outside contract vendors and many more subcontractors.

Next, the FAA clearly needs leadership that will respond promptly to industry changes, rather than years down the pike. It does not appear to have that kind of leadership now.

Finally, Pena’s idea of stripping the FAA of its role of promoting the airline industry at the same time it regulates that business has been around for years. The question has always been whether Congress has the gumption to carry it out. To date it has not, which has left the agency as a buffer for the industry in times of trouble. Now is the time for change.


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