Concern about Boeing caused FAA to delay warning, papers show

July 28, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Federal Aviation Administration officials were concerned about the economic well-being and image of the Boeing company when they pondered whether to adopt measures to prevent accidents caused by potentially deadly wake turbulence from Boeing 757 jetliners, internal documents show.

In January, as the FAA was deciding what to do about Boeing 757 turbulence after the phenomenon had been linked to two fatal crashes, agency officials expressed concerns about how new safety measures would affect sales of the popular, fuel-efficient jetliner.

"It is probably desirable to coordinate with Boeing before this change is made," the agency's then-chief scientist Robert E. Machol wrote on Jan. 12, referring to a proposal to require smaller planes to stay an additional mile behind 757s on final approaches.

"It could have an adverse effect on the sale of 757s, and while I am not a lawyer I suppose there is even some possibility that they could sue us."

On a list of pros and cons drawn up in an analysis of possible consequences of the FAA's taking action, a Jan. 25 chart lists as a con, "Boeing's perception."

Contained in thousands of pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the references involving Boeing raise questions about a commonly leveled criticism that the FAA sometimes favors the well-being of the industry over public safety in its decision-making process.

Deputy FAA Administrator Linda Hall Daschle said yesterday that it was appropriate for the agency to seek out all sides of the issue.

"That is what due process is all about," Ms. Daschle said. "What would be inappropriate," she said, would be to give "greater weight" to Boeing's view, and "that was not done."

Boeing communications manager Jerry Johnson said yesterday that he had not seen the documents and therefore could not comment onwhether it was appropriate for the FAA to consider Boeing's interests in a safety matter.

"The FAA is the one that determines the regulations," Mr. Johnson said. "Safety is first and foremost our greatest concern on any issue."

Released this week over objections from some within the FAA, the previously undisclosed documents also indicate:

* Beginning as far back as 1988 and continuing until recently, Boeing had lobbied against increased spacing for aircraft landing behind 757s, even though aviation officials had pushed for such a measure in the interest of safety.

* The FAA's Flight Standards Office recognized that there was something unique about the 757's turbulence as far back as 1987.

In addition, in April 1988, the Air Line Pilots Association red-flagged the issue in a letter to the FAA and formally requested that the agency test the sleek-bodied 757 to determine why pilots were reporting that it seemed to produce much stronger wake turbulence than other airplanes in its weight class.

* While some FAA officials believed that action was unnecessary, others within the agency noted the organization's lack of response on the 757 issue.

Referring to a list of safety concerns and recommendations promulgated by Mr. Machol in October 1992 -- before any of the fatal accidents -- one unidentified official scribbled on a route slip, "Shouldn't we urge/promote implementation of those [recommendations] we know he's right on, and sponsor research where questions remain?

"I'm a bit nervous just 'sitting' on this stuff," the official wrote.

In February, air crew program manager Glenn Holmbeck wrote to the Office of Accident Investigation in the Recommendation and Quality Assurance division: "Daily, we are risking the traveling public by not addressing the B-757 wake turbulence problem."

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