Hush Job

Special "hush kits" make airplanes quieter. Do they also make them more dangerous?

Following publication of the Scene's article, ABS also issued a fact sheet claiming that, contrary to Friedman's findings, it offers FAA-approved installation manuals and other technical assistance to airlines. The document also claims that "most of [Friedman's] allegations are beyond his field of technical competence."

Hush kits are installed because airplanes make a lot of noise, especially during takeoff and landing, annoying residents near airports like Minneapolis/St. Paul. At the height of the local noise controversy 10 years ago, Northwest Airlines threatened to pull out of Minnesota, claiming imposition of stricter noise rules would be economically damaging to it because its fleet contains a large number of older, noisier jets. A similar tactic was used in 1990 when Northwest stated it would build a new maintenance facility elsewhere if restrictions were enacted. At the same time, the airline exhorted employees to fight anti-noise activists by claiming noise reduction equalled job losses.

The controversy was ultimately muted, if not solved, by the issuance of federal noise regulations in 1991 under which all airlines would have to get rid of the noisier planes, or fit them with "Stage 3" hush kits--for which ABS is the only supplier--by 2003. According to Northwest's 1996 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company plans to install the kits on 173 of its DC-9s. Eighty-three of the airline's planes already have the kits, making Northwest the leading user of the equipment. Airborne Express is second with 44 hush kit-equipped DC-9s.

Northwest spokesman Jon Austin says the airline is confident in the hush kits and the DC-9 fleet as a whole. According to Austin, Northwest has not received a copy of the Friedman report and is not aware of any investigation into the hush kits by the FAA or any other carriers in the industry. "When our planes go out they're ready to fly," Austin says.

Austin may not have heard of an FAA investigation, but federal authorities have been probing the hush-kit issue for some time now. The FAA acknowledges that it has opened two separate investigations of ABS for "apparent failure to conduct proper inspections at their supplier" and the possibility that counterfeit and unapproved parts were used in the hush kit. But it appears that the FAA may be showing interest in the hush-kit issue because another federal watchdog pressured it into doing so. A source familiar with the case says the FAA obtained Friedman's report only because investigators with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General had suspicions ABS was not giving straight answers.

Having reviewed the Friedman report, however, the FAA maintains it is not worried. Ronald T. Wojnar, manager of the FAA's Transport Airplane Directorate, told the Scene there was "no material of any major significance to the FAA" in the document. And James V. Devany, manager of the FAA's Manufacturing Inspection Office for the Transport Airplane Directorate in Renton, Washington, says the FAA does not have "an airworthiness problem" with ABS's hush kit.

Aviation-safety experts who have seen Friedman's report are shocked at Devany's statement, and at the fact that the FAA has not shown the document to the airlines. "This is a total disaster. It's intolerable," charges Frisbee. "If I had seen this report when I was at Northwest, I'd have taken immediate action." And even Devany's colleagues at the FAA find his analysis suspect. "There appears to be a real safety-of-flight problem with the hush kit," says an FAA flight-safety inspector who has reviewed Friedman's report and requested anonymity. "It looks like some FAA officials have taken a cover-your-ass mentality, instead of fixing the problem."

As industry insiders scratch their heads about the FAA's reaction, some charge the response is typical. In her recent best-selling book about the FAA, Flying Blind, Flying Safe, former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation Mary Schiavo charges that the FAA's entrenched bureaucracy seldom takes action until after a disaster has occurred. "The FAA would rather hide an aviation-safety problem than fix it," she told the Scene. "The FAA doesn't act on a problem until after a crash, or more likely, after two crashes. That's what we call the 'two-crash rule.' They hush up safety problems because it costs a lot to fix them and because it's very embarrassing to the FAA."

Frisbee concurs. "If the FAA acknowledges that the DC-9's hush kit isn't safe, it would be a highly embarrassing admission that the FAA may have made serious mistakes--first in approving ABS's hush kit for use, and second for not exercising proper oversight of the manufacturing process to ensure the hush kits were built properly."

George Breckel, a veteran aircraft mechanic who has inspected the type of Pratt & Whitney engines to which the hush kit is attached--and who now coordinates the aircraft mechanics' training program at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Indiana--is more succinct. "I'd say somebody, or [some]bodies, is covering their ass," he told the Scene after reviewing the Friedman report.

Since this article first appeared in the Scene, U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, and William Lipinski, D-Illinois, have requested a hearing on the hush-kit issue in the House Transportation Committee's Subcommittee on Aviation. Lipinski is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, while the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee is Minnesota's Jim Oberstar; a spokesman says Oberstar so far has "not been personally involved" in the matter. "From what we're hearing there's not much of a story there," says Jim Berard, the Democratic communication director for the House Transportation Committee. "The FAA has looked into the situation, and they are at least satisfied in their preliminary findings that these concerns are unfounded." Berard says any hearing on the matter will not be scheduled until next year.

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