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FAA Has One of the Oldest 'New' Woes in Washington : Agency is ignoring history in aftermath of ValuJet crash

July 07, 1996

Much has happened in the aftermath of the Federal Aviation Administration's grounding of ValuJet Airlines. There have been congressional hearings. Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena has said he wants to remove the promotion of air travel from the FAA's jurisdiction while keeping that mission within the Transportation Department, which is charged with fostering air travel and commerce. And the FAA says that it will deal with the "new" problem of outside contract maintenance.

The maintenance problem is anything but new. Twenty years ago, a Mercer Airlines DC-6 went down in Van Nuys. The crash was blamed on the failure of a propeller blade that had been improperly repaired by an outside contractor.

Six years later, during a winter storm in 1982, an Air Florida 737 jet crashed into the icy waters of the Potomac River after taking off from Washington National Airport. De-icing had not been properly carried out. Maintenance had been performed by another air carrier, and the contract maintenance personnel had only limited familiarity with 737s.

Another six years later, an aging Aloha Airlines jet on an inter-island flight in Hawaii experienced explosive decompression, adding the factor of older aircraft to the maintenance issue. In 1991, Continental Express Flight 2574 crashed in Texas. The failure of FAA inspectors to detect and verify compliance with approved maintenance procedures was cited as a contributing element in the crash.

Throughout 1991, 1992 and early 1993, the U.S. General Accounting Office maintained a steady drumbeat, publishing reports and testimony given during congressional hearings. Some of the publication titles offer the flavor: Aging Aircraft Maintenance, Additional FAA Oversight Needed; Aviation Safety, Problems Persist in FAA's Inspection Program; FAA Needs to More Aggressively Manage Its Inspection Program; Slow Progress, Uncertain Future Threaten FAA Program to Measure Safety; Progress Limited With Self-Audit and Safety Violation Reporting Programs; Progress on FAA Safety Indicators Program Slow and Challenges Remain; Aircraft Maintenance, FAA Needs to Follow Through on Plans to Ensure Safety of Aging Aircraft.

Small wonder that eyes glaze over when the FAA speaks of its "new" problem.

The FAA may indeed see its mission changed. It may even be separated from the Transportation Department and given independent status, as a House bill has proposed. All that would not matter a whit in the absence of thorough follow-up and effective scrutiny by those who have dropped the ball before. Among those who bear responsibility for these crucial actions are the office of the FAA administrator, the Transportation Department, the National Transportation Safety Board, successive presidential administrations and Congress, which would be well-advised to take its own hearings a bit more seriously.

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