WASHINGTON — 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.
"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.
"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.
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.