Making air travel safer FAA shake-up: Pena under fire for not moving forcefully enough to scrutinize airlines.

June 23, 1996

LAST MONTH'S horrendous ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades that killed 110 people dramatically underlined weaknesses in Washington's inspection and oversight of airlines. Moves to shake up the Federal Aviation Administration are an appropriate response, though not the attempt to find a scapegoat.

The FAA has a dual and contradictory role of promoting U.S. airlines while ensuring that they are safe. The FAA often finds itself in a bind -- discovering flaws in airline equipment or procedures but being unwilling to take measures that might have severe financial repercussions.

Look at ValuJet. Problems started cropping up less than a year after the deep-discount airline started operating in 1993. Time after time, inspectors uncovered flaws. Yet few demands were made on the fledgling airline.

We will never know if the FAA could have prevented the Everglades crash through tough enforcement action. But the crash has served as a catalyst for changes at the agency.

The most publicized was the resignation of the FAA's top safety expert, Anthony J. Broderick. Slow to react to dynamic changes in the airline industry, Mr. Broderick was renowned for his technical expertise and institutional memory in an agency that has seen constant turnover. But someone had to take the blame, and it certainly wasn't going to be Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena or the White House.

Still, congressional critics have their guns aimed at Mr. Pena for getting too directly involved in FAA matters. Mr. Pena's response was to ask Congress to change the FAA's charter so it deals only with the safety of airlines.

There's no doubt the agency needs to get tough. More frequent and more intensive inspections are in order. So are stricter requirements on airlines for maintenance and training.

Let the Commerce Department tout U.S. airlines. The FAA should change its name to the Federal Aviation Safety Agency. The Everglades crash and other recent air disasters leave no doubt that greater focus on air safety is needed to restore public confidence.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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