Caveat Flier

           BETWEEN THE LINES of last week's stories about ValuJet Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, there was a frank and disturbing disclosure: Speaking on ABC's Nightline, FAA Director David Hinson admitted that the agency's means of making sure commercial air fleets are safe is seriously flawed--an observation that airline safety experts heartily second.

           In truth, the FAA really has no way of knowing just how safe airfleets are because its methods of tracking in-flight mechanical failures contain loopholes, voluntary reporting provisions, and an all-purpose out whereby airlines can classify many in-flight incident reports as proprietary data and refuse to disclose them to the public. And as U.S. airfleets get older, the question of safety and consumer information grows more sensitive.

           How safe is it to fly on Northwest or any other domestic airline? Theoretically anyway, two of the best sources of information on an airline or a particular plane consist of reports filed on mechanical failures that occur while a plane is loaded with passengers. But while required under FAA regulations known as 121.703 and 121.705, these reports are routinely full of holes. Under 703, airlines are supposed to report a wide variety of in-flight mechanical problems, but in practice the regulation is fairly toothless: Beyond a certain class of incidents that airlines must report--such as smoke in the cabin--there are a great many potentially serious mishaps whose reporting status is left to their discretion.

           "There are a whole lot of things that could cause an aborted takeoff or unscheduled landing that aren't required to be reported under that regulation," says Kermit Teppen, an FAA assistant principal maintenance inspector for American Airlines in Dallas. They include, says Teppen, parts falling off an engine as it taxis for takeoff--technically not an in-flight occurrence. But, he adds, "there is a catchall phrase that says if an airline wants to report something else, it can."

           Officials of Northwest Airlines and industry experts agree that NWA does an aggressive job of reporting its in-flight incidents, which makes the airline look bad compared to its competitors--almost 600 unscheduled landings and aborted takeoffs in 1995 compared to 309 by second-place USAir. But if Northwest is making discretionary reports to the 703 database and other airlines aren't, then all it really proves is that the database isn't a good source of public safety information.

           The FAA's regulation 121.705 is more encompassing. It requires the reporting of all unscheduled landings. But these Mechanical Interruption Summaries (MIS) aren't available to the public; the FAA and airlines say they are proprietary information. Indeed, back in 1993 FAA Airworthiness Branch Manager Robert Jensen said that the FAA's Minneapolis office wasn't even keeping Northwest's MIS reports. "They are reviewed by the appropriate inspector and then thrown out," he said.

           "The policy of the FAA as dictated by Washington is to leave the handling of MIS reports to the discretion of local FAA offices, and it's much too discretionary," says John Nance, a Seattle-based pilot and aviation safety analyst who has authored two books on the subject. "You want local FAA officials who are sensitive to keeping a carrier financially viable, but they also have to be ready to act immediately on anything that would decrease their ability to monitor and document what's going on.

           "It all goes back to the dual mandate of the FAA, to promote and regulate," Nance says. "It isn't that the FAA is saying, 'Oh, we can't regulate because we have to promote.' But there is this element that the FAA has to protect carriers, and too often punches are pulled as a result.

           "Every passenger in every mode of transportation is at risk," he continues. "The question is whether it's an appropriate level of risk." And whether an airline might be putting passengers at too much risk is a question that the FAA wants nothing to do with, Nance adds. In fact, the regulatory agency is so caught up in watching out for the nation's airlines--and its own liability, which might be heightened if it took a higher profile role in policing air safety--that it isn't doing its job when it comes to insuring airline safety.

           "The FAA doesn't want to embarrass its carriers unless a decision is made at the agency level to go after somebody," he says. "We need aviation industry people who can say, 'We don't care what the problem is. If you don't want it publicized, fix your maintenance procedures.' Instead, we have an agency that worries about being sued and meanwhile, planes are crashing."

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