USAir acts to reassure flying public on safety CRASH OF USAIR FLIGHT 427

September 10, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers David Folkenflik and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

In the wake of its fifth crash in as many years, a beleaguered USAir scrambled yesterday to shore up public confidence. And federal officials, while revealing that the airline had been under stepped-up scrutiny for the past two years, nevertheless pronounced it safe.

"We deem them to be safe," David R. Hinson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said after visiting the Aliquippa, Pa., site where the Boeing 737-300 went down Thursday evening on its approach to Pittsburgh International Airport, killing 132.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, lines of

passengers snaked in front of the USAir ticket counter as the weekend rush began.

In Pittsburgh, a somber Seth E. Schofield, USAir chairman and CEO, tried to reassure the flying public that the nation's sixth-largest carrier is safe despite the worst fatality record among U.S. airlines in recent years.

"If I thought USAir was an unsafe airline, I would put the entire fleet on the ground today," said Mr. Schofield, who flies USAir four or five times a week, often commuting from his home in Pinehurst, N.C., to the company's Arlington, Va., headquarters.

But the airline's mounting financial losses and string of crashes have led some to question whether USAir is cutting corners on safety and repairs.

And yesterday federal transportation officials said they had beefed up their review of USAir's maintenance, training and aircraft operations during the past two years.

Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena said it is "standard practice" for the FAA to increase its scrutiny whenever an "airline is facing financial challenges."

But he added: "Thus far, we have found no issues or significant matters we are concerned about as a result of our increased surveillance."

USAir spokesman David Shipley strongly denied suggestions that the airline's financial troubles had somehow compromised safety. "We'd never scrimp on maintenance or anything relating to the integrity of the airline," he said in an appearance on the "Today" show.

With the airline's July 2 crash in Charlotte, N.C., still fresh in the minds of some, travelers at BWI seemed somewhat uneasy.

"When something like this happens . . . with no apparent cause for it, obviously it makes you think," said Mike Wyatt, a Goldsboro, N.C., credit company executive who flies to Baltimore twice a month on USAir.

By late afternoon, a Mutual of Omaha outlet at BWI had sold 34 insurance policies, nearly double the daily average of 19. "Usually when there's a train wreck or any other kind of travel accident, people jump to buy more insurance," said Terry Booth, a sales associate who sells a $500,000 flight policy for $16.65.

But Thursday's crash, the nation's worst in seven years, appeared to deter few at BWI from flying; most seemed to take comfort in the odds.

"It's a million-to-one it would happen again in 24 hours," said Cindy Leichliter, who lives in Beaver County, Pa., just three miles from the scene of the crash.

Ms. Leichliter and her husband, Bill, had flown in from Pittsburgh yesterday for a day of shopping at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Anke Schulte, a cancer researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, drove from her home to BWI yesterday to fly USAir -- for the first time. "It was the cheapest flight for me," she explained. "I just took my car and drove to BWI. I could have had five accidents."

Perhaps most significantly, passengers flew USAir yesterday because they had little other choice. Despite the growth in flights offered by other airlines, such as Continental, USAir still handles more than half the airport's 28,000 daily passengers.

From its beginnings as Allegheny Airlines, USAir built its reputation serving the little and midsize towns that other carriers avoided.

"My opinion on this airline is it's Useless Air, but it is the only airline that flies direct to [Hartford, Conn.]," said Tina Diaduk, a preschool teacher who lives in Lexington Park and was traveling to visit her family in Springfield, Mass.

Mr. Schofield said yesterday that the airline had not experienced "an exorbitant rate of cancellations." And local travel agents concurred.

"I had four corporate clients in today, and not one of them switched," said Lou Kellner, assistant manager for Roeder Travel in Cockeysville. "I think the vacationer is the one who will be much more frightened than the one who flies all the time."

But a number of passengers reportedly called USAir or their travel agents to ask whether their plane would be a 737-300. Three of the five crashes since 1989 have in volved the 737. USAir officials have said the 737-300s, used extensively throughout the world, are safe.

Mr. Schofield also said yesterday the five USAir accidents "are totally dissimilar. There is no thread between them." But he conceded public opinion was a potential problem.

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