ValuJet's passenger fleet may stay on the ground in Atlanta this summer, but officials of the discount airline will be spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee yesterday set hearings for next week on ValuJet Airlines' fatal May 11 crash and its "wider ramifications," said aides to the panel's chairman, Rep. Bud Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican.
Committee investigators "have uncovered what appears to be systematic problems in the FAA's oversight of airlines such as ValuJet," Mr. Shuster said. The hearings, beginning Tuesday, will consider other carriers as well as low-fare lines.
The hearings will examine the safety records and practices of ValuJet and its maintenance and cargo-shipping contractors as well as Federal Aviation Administration inspection and oversight of the Atlanta-based carrier.
Republicans have said the FAA was lax in inspecting ValuJet and have accused the agency, part of the Transportation Department, of withholding documents showing that the airline's accident rate was alarmingly high.
Some have said Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena was so eager to endorse new, low-fare airlines that his department overlooked evidence of a growing safety problem at ValuJet.
The FAA forced ValuJet to suspend its flights at midnight Monday after a 30-day probe into the crash of Flight 592, which nose-dived into the Florida Everglades. All 110 persons aboard were killed when the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 crashed.
The FAA and the airline have come under scrutiny. Some FAA inspectors have indicated a fear that talking to the committee would result in discipline by their bosses, Mr. Shuster said.
"I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that any attempt by FAA management to cover up or silence FAA employees will be dealt with severely," Mr. Shuster said in a statement.
Reports emerged in recent weeks that the FAA imposed restrictions on ValuJet's expansion moves Feb. 29 because of safety concerns. The move occurred as ValuJet was preparing to start up service to New York's La Guardia Airport.
The concerns by the agency were at odds with FAA assertions that it believed ValuJet was operating safely before the crash.
In the days immediately after the crash, FAA chief David Hinson and other top agency officials said ValuJet was safe to fly.
"At the time that the airline was deemed to be safe, that decision was based upon the evidence that existed at that time," Mr. Hinson said Monday in announcing the consent agreement under which ValuJet grounded itself.
Sen. Larry Pressler, South Dakota Republican, is angry that Mr. Hinson did not tell his committee about an internal FAA report, concluded before the crash, that compared accident and incident rates of new, low-cost airlines with those of major carriers.
Except for the ValuJet crash, "the case could be made" that low-cost carriers had a better safety record than major airlines, Mr. Hinson told Mr. Pressler at a May 14 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which Mr. Pressler heads.
When word emerged of the internal FAA report and its starkly different conclusions, Mr. Pressler said it "seems to contradict your response" about safety rates.
"The way FAA has handled release of ValuJet safety-related reports to Congress and the public continues to undermine confidence in the agency. The bureaucratic information flow at FAA and DOT must be corrected immediately," Mr. …