Audit clears USAir of major safety problems

March 20, 1995|By Bloomberg Business News

ARLINGTON, Va. -- USAir Group Inc., tagged by the worst crash record of any major airline, was cleared of any major safety problems in an audit that found it still needs to standardize its hodgepodge of procedures.

USAir commissioned the $1 million audit by PRC Aviation, a Tucson, Ariz.-based consultant, last November after a September crash outside Pittsburgh killed 132 people. That accident was the airline's second of the year and its fifth since 1989, more than any major airline had in the past 20 years.

"This will certainly do them a lot of good," said Greg Drahuschak, an analyst with Janney, Montgomery & Scott in Pittsburgh. "The RTC last thing a public transportation company wants is the reputation of being unsafe."

The significance of the safety report pales in comparison, though, with labor negotiations that could determine whether the company survives, he said.

USAir, the nation's sixth-largest airline, took its present shape through gradual mergers with Piedmont Aviation, Allegheny Airlines and Pacific Southwest Airlines starting in the mid-1980s. The mergers cobbled together 10 different types of aircraft, each with their own flight, maintenance and safety procedures.

Last year's crashes near Pittsburgh and in Charlotte, N.C., added to the troubles of a carrier that ended up losing $684.9 million, or $12.73 a share, last year. Some reports, including a lengthy New York Times story, linked the financial troubles to a spotty safety record.

"We knew that was hogwash," Chairman and Chief Executive Seth Schofield said Friday. "Certainly we recognized that we had to prove that to the rest of the world."

The audit found no evidence that the company's financial losses compromised safety. Rather, the report found that some procedures, such as flight checks, weren't done in a standard way as a result of the way the airline came together.

USAir agreed to rewrite all of its publications to provide constancy.

The airline has already adopted some of the recommended measures. For example, it has established a way for pilots and maintenance workers to more easily notify the company of safety problems, Mr. Oaks said.

Many of the recommendations were similar to suggestions made to all carriers at a recent air safety summit meeting called by Transportation Secretary Frederico F. Pena.

Whether the audit will reverse months of bad publicity is unclear. Bookings in January and February rose 10 percent to 15 percent from the year before, but some of that is attributable to far better weather this winter, Mr. Schofield said.

The team of 20 auditors, all former aviation executives or government officials, observed 51 flights and 14 training flights on simulators. The group also worked with 52 managers in USAir's maintenance operations department.

In all, USAir accepted 28 of the 30 recommendations by PRC's team of 20 auditors. They covered issues ranging from crew experience to the need to develop a comprehensive public address announced regarding electronic devices to the use of headsets on all flights below 18,000 feet to avoid communication error.

USAir agreed to establish a separate operating standards group of senior flight personnel to set policies for operating aircraft and standardizing training.

As a result of PRC's concerns, the airline also is requiring that at least one member of a piloting crew have a minimum of 100 hours of experience in that particular aircraft. Previously, USAir required only that the captain of the crew pilot the airplane in landings and takeoffs if nobody in the cockpit had more than 100 hours.

Next month, the airline will meet with its 10 partners in the USAir Express shuttle system as a prelude to a safety audit of the regional carriers and the creation of a safety council to focus on such issues.

The airline rejected recommendations that its 10,000-foot climb and descent public address announcement be replaced by a chime signal and disagreed with a suggestion on the maintenance of its Boeing-737 aircraft. In both cases, USAir said its policies were sufficient and in line with regulations, but would re-examine its maintenance on the 737s as the fleet ages.

USAir's safety record came into question first last year after the July 2 crash of a USAir commuter plane in Charlotte, N.C., which left 37 people dead.

The crash was later blamed on the failure of an on-board wind-shear detection system, but the Federal Aviation Administration put the airline on notice to improve its training and safety programs.

On Sept. 8, just 10 days after the FAA warning, the Pittsburgh crash occurred, the cause of which has yet to be determined.

The New York Times investigation showed that last February, a USAir flight from Washington to Boston was forced to make an emergency landing at New York's La Guardia Airport because it was running out of fuel.

Shortly before, as part of an efficiency drive, USAir had stopped the delivery of refueling receipts to the pilot and cut one of three preflight refueling checks by the pilot.

USAir's process remained in compliance with FAA regulations, but records showed that after adopting the new process, USAir jets left the gate without enough fuel nine different times.

In December, the airline bulked up its preflight checklist by requiring gate agents to tell the cockpit exactly how much fuel is loaded. USAir also now requires the pilot and co-pilot to verbally verify with each other the amount of fuel on board.

In reaction to a recommendation by PRC, USAir agreed Friday to return to its old requirement that cockpit be given a receipt verifying how much fuel is loaded.

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