Air safety information will be posted on the Web Access: FAA action makes it possible for consumers to see the record of incidents and accidents.

February 23, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Federal Aviation Administration has always sought fines from airlines and aviation contractors that violate its rules, but a few days ago the agency began doing something else as well: routinely announcing the penalties, so that travelers will know about the violations. And in three weeks the agency will begin to offer more information over the World Wide Web: data on accidents and other incidents.

"For the first time, the flying public will be able to conveniently determine if their airline has major safety problems," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who first called on the FAA to open itself up after the Valujet crash in May. "From now on, aviation safety secrets are going public."

According to the FAA, the information wasn't exactly secret; it was just that anyone who wanted it would have had to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

But even with easy access, there is some dispute about the meaning of the newly available information. A study produced for the FAA by a consulting company concluded that accidents are too few and far between to establish any trends. Apart from accident data, the study said, "There is little or no statistical evidence for U.S. domestic commercial aviation that other forms of 'safety data' -- incidents, surveillance results, or enforcement actions -- serve as predictors of future accidents or are correlated with accident rates for individual carriers."

The embarrassment factor

But the public release of information may serve another purpose: embarrassment. The adverse publicity could mean more to an airline than a fine of $50,000 or $100,000.

And many people may be curious about equipment failures, unscheduled landings and other incidents that stop short of accidents. The address is http: //www.faa. gov: 80/. Wyden said that the FAA was also working on a toll-free telephone number to provide the same information.

The change is part of a slow shift by then agency. By law, the FAA became a purely regulatory agency late last year; before that it was supposed to regulate and also promote aviation. The change was brought on by the Valujet DC-9 crash in the Everglades. Soon after, Federico Pena, then secretary of transportation, declared that he had flown on Valujet and that it was safe, but after the FAA grounded the carrier a few weeks later, he proposed ending the FAA's promotion mission.

Whether this brings the agency firmly into the consumers' camp is unclear. The FAA has a ranking method, which determines which airlines should get more regulatory scrutiny. But it has said it would not share this with the public. The reason, one spokesman said, is that the ranking may be based on a hunch, an informant with confidential information or other factors that are not statistically measurable.

At the Air Transport Association, which is the trade association of the big carriers, a spokesman, David Fuscus, said that releasing information could be a safety threat, making the airlines compete on safety, and thereby discouraging them from volunteering information to the FAA.

Barry Bermingham, deputy administrator for system safety at the FAA, said information submitted by the airlines voluntarily would be held in close confidence. "We don't shoot the messenger," he said. "If we can receive information that's of value to the FAA in improving a safety system, that was voluntarily submitted, we're going to protect that data from public disclosure," he said.

Details lacking

He also said that security violations would not be described in detail, to avoid giving a road map to terrorists and others.

Various databases on aviation safety have already been put on the Web by other parties, although some of it is from the FAA. For example, the names and address of nearly 600,000 licensed pilots are available at http: //www .avweb.com: 80/. Information on aircraft is available through http: //www.landings.com: 80/ landings/-pages/search.html. The National Transportation Safety Board makes some accident information available at http: // www.ntsb.gov: 80/. The British equivalent of the safety board, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, gives information at http: //www.open.gov.uk: 80/-aaib/ aaibhome.htm.

Another part of the Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, reports on on-time performance at http: //www.bts.gov: 80/oai/-oai .html.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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