Flight From Reality

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The New Republic Inc.  ·  Transport

Has anybody seen Federico Peña? For the past few months, the Secretary of Transportation has been harder to spot than Waldo. He did, however, come out of hiding long enough to announce he won’t be joining Clinton’s Cabinet if the president is re-elected.

It’s hard not to suspect that Peña’s pending retirement has something to do with ValuJet Flight 592. Almost before the plane settled on the bottom of the swamp, Peña rushed to the Everglades to proclaim the airline safe.

ValuJet has "in some cases even exceeded the safety standards that we have at the FAA," he said at a May 12 briefing in the Everglades, less than twenty-four hours after the crash. "I have flown ValuJet. ValuJet is a safe airline."

A month later he shut that "safe" airline down. It would be bad enough if Peña only figured out the airline was unsafe after the crash. But it appears that he knew it before then, or at least should have known — and did nothing about it.

The first suspicious event happened on April 23 of this year, a month before the crash, when the Department of Transportation released a report titled "Low-Cost Airline Service Revolution." The report claimed that "in the last year, American consumers have saved an estimated $6.3 billion in airline fares" because of "new low-cost, low-fare airlines."

Most of the credit, Peña said in an accompanying statement, went to his boss: "These developments are, in large part, the outgrowth of President Clinton’s effort to support new-entrant carriers."

Clinton himself added, "Today’s report is more good news for Americans who are enjoying lower fares as a result of our efforts to increase competition."

Curiously, though, one of the airlines the report repeatedly referred to as "new" — Southwest — began service in 1971. Indeed, the report omitted a crucial fact — that Southwest accounted for three-fourths of the flights of the low- cost carriers.

Without Southwest, the $6.3 billion in savings would have been perhaps a bit over a billion, according to Michael Boyd, president of Aviation Systems Research Corporation of Golden, Colorado. Excluding Southwest, low-cost carriers handle less than 3 percent of U.S. passenger traffic.

But there is something more ominous about the inclusion of Southwest in the April 23 report. Although the study contains no safety data, Peña claimed in his statement that the start-up airlines were just as safe as the higher-priced carriers. "All these airlines are safe," he said. "They are safe to fly. They are competent."

With the glaring exception of one airline, he was right. That airline was ValuJet.

On May 2, just nine days before the ValuJet crash, the FAA produced a nine- page report on the safety records of the various new airlines. It was ordered by Anthony Broderick, who was then the FAA’s associate administrator of regulation and certification. (Broderick quickly resigned after the accident and was widely seen as Peña’s scapegoat.)

The report was prepared by Bob Matthews, an analyst with the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation. Matthews told me he made the explicit decision to provide different sets of data — one including and one excluding Southwest. The results were startling. Far from "exceeding" FAA standards, ValuJet’s record was a nightmare.

When Southwest was included, the overall accident rate of the ten low-cost carriers was virtually the same as that of the eight higher-priced carriers, and the serious accident rate was identical. But, when Southwest was taken out, the overall accident rate of the start-ups jumped to four times that of the established carriers, and the serious accident rate was more than six times greater.

Virtually all of this discrepancy was due to ValuJet’s poor record. While the other eight true start-ups evaluated in Peña’s April 23 report had one accident among them, ValuJet had five. While the others had no serious accidents, ValuJet had three. ValuJet’s accident record was fourteen times that of the high-fare carriers. Its serious accident rate was thirty-two times higher. The airline did not respond to my repeated requests for comment.

I contacted the office of David Hinson, Peña’s appointee as head of the FAA, to find out when he first saw the report. Hinson, through his press spokesman Les Dorr, told me I would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) to get that information. FOIA requests are intended to get the government to release documents, not to get government officials to utter one sentence answers to one-sentence questions. In other words, Hinson didn’t want to say.

But the more important question is when Peña saw the May 2 report. According to his press spokesman Bill Schulz, it was not until shortly after Flight 592 went down. At that time, Peña was given a packet of material, including the report to prepare him for the inevitable barrage of questions. Bob Matthews confirms this. "Peña I’m sure got it for the first time at the accident site."

Indeed, it was Matthews who faxed it to him. "That’s when I put the note on the cover," he said.

The note on the cover? Yes, though the report was concise enough that all of the accident data fit on a single page, Matthews did not want to take any chances that Peña would miss what appeared to be a very vital point.

As the note stated, "Southwest so dominates the data for the low-cost group that this finding [of an accident rate comparable to the high-cost airlines] is not transferable to low-cost carriers in general."

It also said that "just two carriers account for all five serious accidents recorded for this expanded group (ValuJet and Tower)." Yet, with this report in his hands, Peña maintained the fiction of equivalent safety records on two television shows the day after the ValuJet crash.

"We’ve looked at the safety record of both the low-cost carriers and the so-called higher-cost carriers," he said on the NBC program Sunday Today. "The safety records ... are comparable." Then, on This Week with David Brinkley that same day, he said, "We recently did a study of the safety record of low-cost and other airlines, and the safety records are comparable."

"It [the May 2 report] was literally in his hand, and you could literally see the note on the cover," exclaimed one FAA official, who insisted on anonymity. "I thought, Jesus Christ, why didn’t you read the note on the cover?" Which presumes, of course, that he hadn’t.

Naturally reporters were curious to see the report themselves, and on May 16 the DOT turned a somewhat revised, but just as damning, version over to The Chicago Tribune. It was still accompanied by a spin-doctoring press release claiming the report "concludes that since 1990, there has been little difference between low-cost and major airlines in the rates for accidents, runway incursions [sliding off the runway], and pilot deviations." There was no mention that the May 2 report had done a breakdown excluding Southwest. Shortly thereafter, Broderick — who Matthews says has an excellent reputation at FAA — resigned.

"It’s wink, wink, we can’t tell the public," Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo told the House Aviation Subcommittee during its June 26 hearings. "Why shouldn’t the public know about this report on ValuJet on May 2? I bet a few people wouldn’t be on that plane." Schiavo resigned on July 8, both out of frustration and a desire to spend more time with her family, she says.

The problem isn’t just that Peña misrepresented the May 2 report, but that he should have known about the data long before the report appeared. "It didn’t have anything in it that Tony [Anthony Broderick] didn’t already know," Matthews told me. "I don’t know that it told anybody anything new around here. It was a two- to three-hour piece of work. That data is pretty easily available to anybody. It’s pretty straightforward stuff; it wasn’t rocket science."

Documents obtained from the FAA by The Cleveland Plain Dealer after the ValuJet crash showed at least four inspections of the airline since 1993 reporting "widespread safety problems that were neither fully investigated nor corrected," according to the paper.

Indeed, a Defense Department inspection of the airline’s maintenance oversight in August 1995 declared: "Evaluation: Unsatisfactory."

Two months before that, a ValuJet plane beginning a takeoff to Miami was destroyed after parts of an engine flew into the fuselage, igniting a fire that consumed the plane. Luckily, no one was killed. A recent investigation found that the engine, bought from a Turkish firm, had been flying with a visible crack for four years.

By February 7 of this year, the situation was so critical that staffers from the Inspector General’s office met with FAA inspectors in Atlanta to discuss ValuJet’s problems. Documents show the IG’s staff talked about more than a dozen safety problems at the airline. Schiavo said later that she decided then, "I would not get on [ValuJet] because of the number of incidents that have been reported."

Seven days later, an internal FAA memo suggested that ValuJet be shut down pending recertification. On May 6, just five days before Flight 592 went down, an FAA preliminary draft report found more than 100 ValuJet safety violations. All this prompted Schiavo to write an essay in Newsweek saying she would not fly on ValuJet. Alas, although written before the crash, it appeared afterwards.

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which represents flight attendants at ValuJet and many other airlines, has petitioned the FAA to forbid ValuJet to fly again under its current management. "If the [DOT] abandons its previous, tougher approach simply to help ValuJet’s executives stay in place, the safety of the entire industry will soon be allowed to fall to ValuJet’s level," Patricia Friend, the union’s international president, said in a statement. The attendants’ request was denied, and on August 29 the FAA gave ValuJet tentative approval to resume certain flights.

Even before ValuJet’s initial grounding, the AFA was getting word from its members about the airline, and the word was they were scared. "We informed the FAA we were aware of safety problems," spokeswoman Jill Gallagher told me. "Our president [Friend] was a United Airlines flight attendant for thirty years, and she had six unscheduled landings in her thirty years. In the first six months of this year ValuJet had fifty-nine unscheduled landings. I have a list of flight attendants who quit because of the safety problems," says Gallagher. Or were fired.

One ValuJet flight attendant, she says, "called the FAA emergency hotline and reported a safety violation, and the FAA pretty much blew it off, saying it was a union matter. Seven days later the flight attendant was fired. Later it was found it was in fact a true safety violation, yet the FAA didn’t take action, saying the airline had acted to mitigate it."

The violation was that a child over the age of 2 was allowed to sit on a parent’s lap instead of being buckled into a seat. On the day after the crash of Flight 592 the death toll increased by one when it was found that a 4- year-old was sitting on a parent’s lap.

Testifying before Congress on June 17, the day Peña finally ordered ValuJet shut down, Schiavo said she repeatedly brought up the ValuJet problem with Peña’s chief of staff, Ann Bormolini. Peña, though, claims Bormolini never relayed Schiavo’s concerns. Bormolini quit almost immediately after the crash and went to Denver. She’s now harder to find than Salman Rushdie.

Three different DOT press officers said they asked their superiors where to contact her and were given no response. Schiavo, for one, doesn’t believe Peña’s version. "To my amazement," she told me, "Peña and Hinson said they knew nothing about the ValuJet concerns. Is it logical to assume that the chief of staff [Bormolini] would have only talked to me about what was going on at ValuJet but not to Peña or Hinson?"

Schiavo has another explanation. Bormolini had told her that the airline knew "that the IG’s office was snooping around ValuJet" (Schiavo’s words). "I was floored, because it was apparent to me that somebody at DOT had tipped off ValuJet," she says. "I wondered how tough the FAA would be. I thought they might be cut some slack."

But why would Peña have lied about ValuJet? His history as Denver mayor may provide some clue. He began his reign during the ’80s by declaring Denver "poised for greatness," but it soon became clear that he was thinking more of himself than the city. He billed his largest mega-project, the Denver International Airport, as the second largest in the nation. Located at the beginning of Peña Boulevard, it turned out to be the second largest in Denver. The bill was three times what the locals were told it would be. What Peña got was praise from President Clinton and a place in the new administration.

Boyd thinks the ValuJet fiasco happened for the same reason. It all goes back to the April 23 report claiming the Clinton administration was saving the public $6.3 billion because of its promotion of low-cost carriers. "It was a suck-up report to make his boss look like a star," says Boyd. "One hundred and ten people were sacrificed for politics in an election year. And Federico Peña has their blood on his hands."