Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

FAA Criticism Resurfaces after Crash of Valujet

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

FAA Criticism Resurfaces after Crash of Valujet

Article excerpt

After the roof of an Aloha Airlines jet ripped open during a flight in 1988, the nation learned of a problem unforeseen by the airlines, aircraft manufacturers and their overseers in the government.

The commercial air fleet was aging beyond anyone's expectations. Planes designed to be obsolete in 20 years were approaching their third decade of service. New maintenance procedures and oversight were needed.

It took the Federal Aviation Administration two years to issue those orders after the accident with Aloha's Boeing 737. A flight attendant was swept out of the plane to her death, and 61 people were hurt.

An FAA plan to establish a computerized directory to target old jetliners for greater scrutiny languished another three years.

"The effectiveness of FAA's inspection initiatives to monitor the aging aircraft fleet is questionable," the General Accounting Office warned in a report in 1993.

Today, with the directory finally in place, the FAA's ability to monitor the health of old aircraft, the maintenance of newer jets and the training of pilots and mechanics remains under question.

Limited by budget, training and time, the agency's 2,600 inspectors spend only a third of their time overseeing aircraft maintenance, mostly by reviewing paperwork from the airlines. Only a handful of the more than 1,800 aged aircraft undergo detailed examination.

"One of the things that the inspectors don't do enough of, they tell you, is go out and visually check out where the maintenance is being done," said Steven Calvo, senior evaluator with the General Accounting Office.

With the ValuJet tragedy, the FAA is once more in the hot seat. The agency is targeted for investigation by its parent agency, the Department of Transportation. FAA officials face grilling in Congress.

"I don't want to hear anymore how safe we are due to statistics," Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., said Tuesday. "We need a strong FAA, we need a responsible FAA."

Such criticism is not new. FAA procedures have been questioned for decades. Its inspection system and training programs have been the subject of one white paper after another.

In 1987, 1989 and again in 1991, the General Accounting Office reported to Congress that the FAA lacked complete and accurate information on what its own inspectors were doing. …

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