Agencies disagree over need for air safety measures Critics say economics carries too much weight

June 30, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

During the past three decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has rejected 532 recommendations that the National Transportation Safety Board said were necessary to improve air safety.

The recommendations are contained in a 750-page document some NTSB investigators call the "I-told-you-so list" -- because items occasionally come back to haunt the industry in crashes.

FAA officials, on the other hand, say the agency has adopted or is reviewing almost 83 percent of the safety board's 3,300 recommendations.

"Out of the 3,300 recommendations that the safety board has made, there are less than 10 that the FAA has flat rejected," said Dave Thomas, director of the FAA's office of accident investigations. "In every other case, we have done something that for whatever reason did not meet the expectations of the NTSB."

The Dallas Morning News reviewed the safety board's documents and found that among the rejected recommendations were provisions that would have:

Required more detailed emergency briefings before each flight.

Forced airlines to equip all older airplanes with seats that can better withstand the forces of crash landings and subsequent fires.

Made stricter icing tests mandatory for airplane models certified after 1981. Investigators say such tests might have led to modifications that would have prevented a buildup of freezing drizzle that is believed to have caused a crash in October 1994. All 68 people on board were killed when an American Eagle ATR-72 flipped and crashed near Roselawn, Ind.

FAA officials say that often they find better ways to deal with issues than following the safety board's suggestions. Most of the recommendations can be easily addressed, while others are more involved and can take years to study, FAA officials said.

The NTSB is an independent agency that is charged with investigating accidents in all modes of transportation. The board cannot force other agencies, including the FAA, to accept its recommendations.

Records show that the FAA has fully acted on 1,890 of the board's recommendations -- 57 percent -- and has gone beyond what the board suggested only four times.

The board accepted 400 alternative ideas proposed by the FAA and was persuaded to rescind 108 recommendations after the aviation administration proved they were unnecessary.

But safety advocates contend that many of the rejected recommendations are as important as -- or more important than -- others that were endorsed.

"The process is commonly known as tombstone technology. Once there are enough tombstones, changes get made," said Raymond DeCarli, assistant inspector general for the U.S. Transportation Department.

Several safety advocates say the FAA has a long history of bowing to airline and economic pressures, which has resulted in the rejection of many safety board recommendations.

"Often, the FAA has put promoting air commerce ahead of air safety," said Chris Witkowski, director of air safety and health for the national Association of Flight Attendants. "Consequently, safety improvements that could have saved lives have been rejected."

The role the FAA plays in ensuring air safety has become a central issue in the debate surrounding the crash of ValuJet Flight 592, which killed 110 people on May 11 in the Florida Everglades.

Critics say the FAA's attitude of treating the airlines as "partners" -- instead of acting as the safety police for passengers -- has compromised safety.

Although Transportation Secretary Federico Pena rejects such charges, earlier this month he announced that he would urge Congress to change the FAA's charter to make the agency responsible for "safety and only safety."

Many safety advocates said they hope the change in the charter will prompt the FAA to review its stance on some of the recommendations that previously were rejected.

"It's unreasonable to hope that all of them will get adopted, but there are a number of safety-related issues that simply make sense," said Mike Overly, editor of the Aviation Safety Monitor, a publication of the Aviation Safety Institute, a watchdog group in Worthington, Ohio.

For instance, they cite the FAA's refusal to require children under 2 to be strapped in safety seats on the grounds that it is not cost-efficient.

By law, the only thing not required to be stowed or strapped down during takeoff and landing is a small child. The FAA has refused to change that because its economic studies showed that thousands of air travelers would choose to drive to their destinations rather than pay for an extra seat.

The FAA argues that that also would place travelers at a greater risk than flying, because 82 people who chose to drive rather than fly would die in accidents over a 10-year period.

The safety board keeps its top priorities on a "Most Wanted Transportation Safety List" that includes several recommendations the FAA has rejected.

In 1994, for example, the board urged the FAA to require greater separation between large and small airplanes after investigating accidents and incidents in which small planes crashed or were damaged after flying through the invisible wake left by large jets.

The wake, which resembles a horizontal whirlwind, can flip light aircraft. Over a 10-year period, 27 people were killed, eight were seriously injured, and 40 airplanes were damaged or destroyed by the phenomenon.

The FAA rejected the safety board's suggestion, in part because requiring greater separation between planes would force air traffic controllers to make less-efficient use of airspace, which would translate into costly delays for airlines.

FAA officials said the agency is still working on the issue and has developed several training programs that have made pilots more aware of risks.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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