FAA asks Congress to change its role Agency would make safety sole mission, drop task of promotion

June 19, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration, acknowledging for the first time that its ability to enforce airline safety standards was in question, announced historic changes yesterday in the way it oversees the airline industry.

Among them, Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena recommended that Congress amend the FAA's legislative charter by eliminating its role in promoting air commerce and making safety its sole mission.

In addition, the agency said its longtime safety czar, Anthony J. Broderick, would leave at the end of next week. And it announced that it was instituting major regulations to tighten safety compliance at newer airlines.

The FAA, long troubled by budget cuts in an era of airline growth, admitted that the crash of a ValuJet airliner last month exposed weaknesses in its procedures for guaranteeing the safety of the flying public.

"The FAA looked itself in the mirror," Pena said. "It found that organizational and management changes were needed."

Underlying many of the changes was concern that the FAA faces a potential crisis of confidence with the traveling public.

In his public resignation letter to FAA Administrator David Hinson, Broderick bluntly raised the public confidence issue. "The events of the past week mandate that you make major visible changes to improve the public confidence in the safety of our transportation system," he said.

Hinson named Barry L. Valentine, currently assistant FAA administrator for policy, planning and international aviation, to fill Broderick's job while the agency seeks a permanent replacement.

Hinson acknowledged that the agency was suffering through a "fairly gloomy" period in which even he has questioned whether budget cuts have depleted too many of the agency's resources.

The ValuJet accident brought home to the agency that its method of overseeing the airline industry was predicated on conditions that in many cases no longer exist: large, stable airlines that buy their aircraft right off the assembly line, maintain the aircraft themselves and carefully train their pilots.

Though deregulation was set in motion 18 years ago, only in recent years has the pace of change in the industry accelerated to the point where the FAA was dealing with a largely transformed industry.

ValuJet, like other low-cost start-up airlines, purchased fairly old aircraft, contracted out maintenance to a patchwork of contractors and relied exclusively on outsiders to train its pilots. Carriers that adopted those practices have become widely referred to as "virtual airlines."

"The FAA must adjust and be able to fully evaluate the safety of all these methods of operation," Pena said, suggesting that it had slipped behind.

The new regulations outlined by Hinson would require all airlines to certify that their outside contractors for maintenance and training comply with federal safety regulations. The new rules would also require the airlines to disclose all the outsiders performing such services and subject the outside contractors to direct FAA oversight.

Hinson also directed a review of a broad range of safety concerns that were raised by a recent study conducted by the consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton.

The report predicted serious problems if the FAA's budget continues its downward trajectory. Hinson said the 90-day review would look at staffing standards, workload distribution and contract services.

Hinson said he and Broderick "have both worried that the FAA may not have the financial resources it needs long term to do the job the American people require of us. This industry is growing at an exceptionally rapid rate."

The FAA's announcements were believed to represent an urgent effort to reassure the public about the agency's ability to oversee safety, said Tim Neale, a spokesman for the Airline Transport Association, a trade group representing major airlines.

"Our members know how important it is to ensure safety," Neale said. "But the public wants a government policeman doing the job. It is important that the public have confidence in that policeman."

Hinson and Pena have been heatedly questioned about why they were so quick to assure the public immediately after the May 11 accident that ValuJet was still safe to fly, only to decide this week that the discount carrier was so badly run that it would have to suspend operations.

Hinson said the closer examination of the airline after the accident disclosed the problems that led to its grounding.

Broderick's departure is likely to trigger new concerns about the FAA's capabilities, said John E. O'Brien, director of engineering and air safety at the Air Line Pilots Association, a union.

"If there is a crisis coming, we would rather have Mr. Broderick there," O'Brien said. "He is one of the more capable career bureaucrats at the FAA."

Broderick, who was associate administrator for regulation and certification for roughly two decades, had become increasingly outspoken within the aviation community recently, expressing his own deep reservations about FAA budget cuts. In the end, his candor became unacceptable, FAA officials acknowledged.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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