Saturday, May 10, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 11

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”May 11, 1996: A ValuJet DC-9 crashed into the Everglades shortly after takeoff from Miami, killing all 110 persons aboard. The crew’s loss of control was due to an intense fire caused by activation of one or more oxygen generators carried in the forward cargo compartment. In a report released in Aug 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board found the accident’s probable cause to be: the failure of SabreTech, a Valujet contractor, to properly handle and identify the chemical oxygen generators before presenting them to the airline for carriage; Valujet’s failure to properly oversee its contract maintenance program; and FAA’s failure to require smoke detection and fire suppression systems in cargo compartments of the type (Class D) in which the fire had started.

On the day after the crash, FAA announced an expansion of its ongoing review of Valujet (see Feb 20, 1996). On May 23, DOT’s Research and Special Projects Administration issued an immediate temporary ban on the the transportation of chemical oxygen generators as cargo on passenger airlines. (See Jun 17 and Dec 30, 1996.) ”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Valujet was the poster child for airline deregulation and the cost to safety. Below is a sample of the most serious safety lapses, in time sequence. The cites with links are from the NTSB. The cites in italics are from the FAA Historical Chronology.

June 8, 1995 -- Valujet 597 -- An engine explodes, pieces pierce the fuselage and start a fire on the runway in Atlanta, GA

December 12, 1995 -- Valujet Flight 224 -- Another engine disintegrates after takeoff but it is contained in the engine housing.

January 7, 1996 -- ValuJet Flight 558 -- Landed short of the runway at Nashville, TN after the crew reset circuit breakers they had disabled earlier and the spoilers deployed prematurely while the aircraft was on final.

February 1, 1996 -- Valujet Flight -- The right main landing gear collapses on landing at Nashville, TN.

”Feb 20, 1996: FAA began a 120-day special emphasis safety review of ValuJet Airlines, an innovative low-cost carrier that had grown rapidly since its certification on Oct 21, 1993. Factors prompting the review included a series of incidents and nonfatal accidents. (See May 11, 1996.) “

May 11, 1996 -- Valujet Flight 592 -- After an in-flight fire, the aircraft crashed into the Everglades killing 110 people.

”Jun 17, 1996: FAA announced that ValuJet Airlines would cease operations, as of midnight on the same day, pending safety improvements required under a consent decree (see Aug 29, 1996). The agency based its action on an intensified inspection of the carrier undertaken since the recent crash (see May 11, 1996). FAA stated that this heightened scrutiny had revealed serious safety deficiences in the areas of airworthiness, maintenance, quality assurance of contractors, and engineering capability. The announcement sparked renewed criticism of DOT and FAA because it appeared to contrast with statements, made following the accident, assuring the public that the airline was safe. The next day, Secretary of Transportation Peña and Administrator Hinson described steps to improve safety oversight and address public concerns. Peña stated that he would urge Congress to make safety FAA’s single primary mission (see Sep 30, 1996). Hinson outlined improvements to FAA’s examination of airlines, such as ValuJet, that relied heavily on contractors for maintenance and training. He stated that Deputy Administrator Daschle would lead a review of pertinent regulatory issues (see Sep 16, 1996). Hinson also announced the retirement of Anthony J. Broderick, Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification. (See Jul 15 and Nov 14, 1996.)“

This list is by no means exhaustive. I didn’t list all the incidents in the NTSB’s database. If you’re interested (and have a lot of time) go to the database, fix the “date range” to something appropriate (starting in 1990 will do), scroll down to “Enter your word string below” and type in Valujet. The story it will tell is bad enough but it still isn’t the whole story. According to the Wikipedia entry on Valujet,

“ValuJet planes made fifteen emergency landings in 1994, fifty-seven in 1995, and fifty-seven from January through May of 1996.“

The airline only had 56 airplanes at its peak.

One of my readers gently chastised me for giving the impression that Valujet actually went out of business in my previous post. Guilty as charged.

”Aug 29, 1996 FAA returned ValuJet’s operating certificate to the airline, stating that the carrier had completed the safety improvements outlined in the consent order that grounded it (see Jun 17, 1996). The action cleared ValuJet to renew operations, subject to a DOT fitness ruling subsequently granted on Sep 26. The airline resumed flying on Sep 30. FAA imposed a limit of 15 aircraft, subject to review, in contrast to the 51 aircraft that the carrier had operated before its grounding. “

Again, that isn’t the whole story. From Wikipedia:

”After the large amount of negative publicity surrounding the Flight 592 incident, ValuJet suffered serious financial problems. On July 11, 1997, ValuJet announced it would merge with the much smaller Airways Corporation, parent of AirTran Airways. The merged company would retain the AirTran name, although ValuJet was the senior partner and nominal survivor of the merger. In November 1997, the company announced it would move its headquarters from Atlanta to Orlando. On November 17, 1997, AirWays Corp. and ValuJet completed their merger, and the ValuJet name passed into aviation history. “

More information can be found under Wikipedia’s AirTran Airways entry:

”In July 1997, AirWays Corporation announced a merger with ValuJet Airlines. In one of the U.S. airline industry's first reverse mergers, ValuJet was re-named AirTran Airways in 1997. This was done because the firm's public image never recovered from the crash of ValuJet Flight 592. On September 24, 1997 the parent company became AirTran Holdings Inc, and operations under new management began on September 1, 1998. “

(Emphasis added)

If you’ll conduct the same search of the NTSB’s database that I detailed above on AirTran, you’ll find less entries than you found on Valujet -- despite the fact that AirTran has been in business longer and has a fleet well over twice the size Valujet ever had. In addition, if you dig deep enough, you’ll notice that 4 out of the 7 incidents found for AirTran lead you back to Valujet.

If you take enough time to research the whole sordid mess that is deregulation, you will find people and machines taken out of a stable, profitable airline industry and thrown into deregulation’s race to the bottom of the barrel. Literally tens of thousands of good-paying jobs were lost, pensions tossed aside for the government to pick up (if you were lucky) and lives ruined (if you were “lucky”) or snuffed out (if you weren’t).

And for what ? A cheap ticket so you can be stuffed into a torturous seat on yet-another-delayed flight ? An initial public offering on stock for an airline that won’t even be in business for 5 years ? Another golden parachute for an endless list of CEOs at bankrupt airlines ?

It is insane. Almost insane as a government agency that can’t keep pace in this race to the bottom. Valujet grew faster than the FAA could inspect them. The FAA couldn’t adapt fast enough to regulate Valujet’s contractor SabreTech. If that makes you worry that the FAA can’t adapt fast enough to oversee the proliferation of airlines using foreign repair stations -- then good !

While you’re thinking about it, see if you can come up with a good reason that we’re even running in this race. I -- for one -- can’t.

Don Brown
May 10, 2008

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