"Flying Blind, Flying Safe"


Following are excerpts from the book Flying Blind, Flying Safe by Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation (Avon Books, 1997). The book focuses on the failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to independently evaluate safety in aviation, and in so doing reveals the organizational character of the FAA.



The FAA's Historic Mandate Is to Promote the Aviation Industry (pp. 48-51)

"At its core, safety isn't cost effective. Recommendations for changes in airline practices, for new equipment, for improved safety rules were evaluated not in terms of how many accidents they might prevent or lives they might save, but in terms of how many dollars they would cost the airlines, aircraft builders, parts manufacturers or fleet maintenance companies. When the National Transportation Safety Board first advised in 1991 that all planes should have black boxes with advanced recording technology, the FAA wanted to know how much it would cost the airlines in lost revenue while planes were pulled out of service for retrofitting. The FAA had the same response when the NTSB clamored for new fire safety measures -- how much would it cost the carriers to buy and install fire and smoke detection systems for cargo holds? How much would it cost to recall all propeller blade models suspected of faulty cracks? To extend the de-icing boot on the wing of ATR planes? To require aircraft manufacturers to run actual tests of safety features on new planes? How much would it cost to require child safety seats, or smoke hoods for every passenger?

"In the years right before I became Inspector General, the Department of Transportation, the airline industry and the FAA had resisted recommendations to add fire-retardant upholstery, cabin-floor emergency lights for crash evacuation and improved fire extinguishers and smoke detectors to planes. In 1985, Representative Norman Y. Mineta, chairman of the House Subcommittee onAviation, blasted the industry for its safety complacency and accused it of 'actively resisting and trying to thwart" simple improvements like lighting and fire extinguishers as 'not being worth the cost.'

. . .

"There is a valid reason for the aviation industry's position, an honest concern about expenses and profitability. They have every right to argue in favor of keeping costs down. But once inside the department, I wondered why the FAA was arguing for them. It's a federal agency, funded with taxpayer money, charged with advocating safety. The aviation industry could be expected to maintain hat it couldn't afford to implement new procedures, install new equipment, pull planes out of service. But why was the FAA advocating for them? The FAA regularly told the NTSB that it couldn't have anything on its wish list of safety measures because of cost considerations. It regularly told the same thing to the Inspector General, Congress, even the White House.

. . .

"The FAA can rightfully argue that it is just doing its job. Except that contrary to public belief, it doesn't work for the traveling public. It works for the aviation industry. This would probably surprise most Americans. But that is because most don't make a habit of reading obscure congressional acts from the 1950s. Even when the policy makes the nightly news, it is often overshadowed as the FAA promotes its image as a safety and regulatory agency. But the truth is, Congress declared in the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 that the FAA's primary purpose is to '... provide for the regulation and promotion of civil aviation....' Air safety is low on the act's list of policies. The first priority is to promote the business of aviation.

"'The encouragement and development of an air-transportation system properly adapted to the present and future needs of the foreign and domestic commerce of the United States,' the statute says. If that's not enough, the policy is even more specific in its third goal. 'The promotion of adequate, economical and efficient service by air carriers at reasonable charges....' The law obligates the head of the FAA to champion the 'promotion, encouragement and development of civil aviation.' It's quite clear: 'The Administrator is empowered and directed to encourage and foster the development of civil aeronautics and air commerce in the United States and abroad.'

"The FAA's dual mission did not leap out at anyone in 1958 -- or in most of the years following -- as a glaring paradox. In those days, aviation was heavily regulated. The government controlled prices, routes, even the purchase of airplanes. The aviation industry thrived under the care and nurthuring of the government. The government and the military were intrinsic to the development of aviation; the same people guided and assisted aviation on both sides. The aviation industry urged Congress to pass the very legislation that created the FAA. The FAA's mandate was essentially a national industrial policy designed to foster commercial aviation."


The FAA Borrows a Page from the CIA (p. 54)

(Schiavo describes an FAA presentation to her staff in which officials predicted an alarming increase in aircraft crashes unless the FAA was given huge increases in funding.)

"When the pitch was over, the FAA officials diligently collected the charts from each of us. But as they went around the room, they warned us: no news of these terrible predictions should be made public. People would only be scared away from air travel, forced into their cars and killed on the freeways, they said as they gathered up the charts, packed them carefully and took them away. Stunned, I wanted to study the data. Where had it come from, how had it been interpreted and substantiated, and what were the airlines planning to do about it? More important, what did the FAA plan to do to prevent all these new crashes? But the presentation was over. No strategy was mentioned or explained at the meeting; the FAA's efforts were all focused on increasing its budget....

"Determined to have my own copies of those charts, I asked the FAA to send me the graphs and any supporting reserach. The reply was swift: no such data existed, I was told. No charts or graphs like that in our offices, the FAA said. In fact, no such research had been done, no such conclusions reached. But I'd seen them, I argued; I'd held them in my hands! That didn't matter; suddenly, none of the officials knew what I was talking about. Over the next few years, I came to learn firsthand that, sadly, withholding information was routine for the FAA."


Passionate Belief Outweighs the Facts (pp. 55-57)

"Eastern Airlines was a venerable institution.... But like many airlines, it began having financial trouble in the mid 1980s. Eastern laid off staff, trimmed flights and ultimately declared bankruptcy. Gradually, reports began to circulate that in its last days it had also cut corners on maintenance, reporting partial repairs and repairs that hadn't been done at all as having been completed. The U.S. Attorney's office in New York had been tipped off that many maintenance records in Eastern's New York facility had been falsified. The prosecutors decided to take a look at the allegations. Immediately they were startled to find hostility and resistance from the FAA. Eventually the U.S. Attorney decided the FAA was actually interfering, trying to thwart the investigation and protect Eastern. FAA officials leaked confidential agency and grand jury documents to Eastern, including secret investigation reports. It tried to replace two inspectors working on the case after Eastern complained about them. The lawyers complained to the Attorney General in Washington, who in turn asked [Transportation Department] Secretary Skinner to intervene. Skinner asked me to take a stab at sorting out the conflict between the FAA and the U.S. Attorney.

"Obviously the first step was to get everyone together. A meeting was set up with lawyers from the Justice and Transportation departments, the FAA Deputy Administrator and his staff. and junior field officers who regularly worked at Eastern and had seen the suspicious maintenance records....

"Once the meeting was under way, the FAA's Deputy Administrator, Barry Harris, sat still and quiet as the federal prosecutors laid out their complaints in cautious language. ... A tall, thin, patrician man, Harris looked stern as an official from the New York FAA field office that supervised Eastern agreed with the prosecutors: there seemed to be some irregularities in the airline's maintenance. Suddenly, Harris bolted forward in his seat and erupted. Chins jerked up and heads pivoted in astonishment. Eastern was a safe airline. He was unconvinced by evidence of poor maintenance or falsified records. He knew, he barked, because he flew home on Eastern every week. He commuted between Washington and Florida, and so did he family. Would he put his family on Eastern if it was not safe? Harris argued vehemently.

"The room fell into stunned silence. The rest of us waited as the Deputy Administrator stopped. But he said no more -- he offered no evidence to contradict the federal prosecutor, just a passionate loyalty to Eastern. I sat immobilized by the outburst. There was an uncomfortable silence. Harris had barked his defense of Eastern in front of the FAA junior field staff. Now, shrinking back in their seats, they seemed to want to disappear. ... How could these inspectors not feel they had been disloyal to the FAA? They had sided with the enemy. For the first time, I saw for myself how difficult it is for FAA employees to speak out against an airline or take a position contrary to the management line. Certainly these field officials would never blunder like that again. Harris's message was plain: loyalty to the airline industry was more important than getting to the bottom of Eastern's maintenance mess. The FAA itself would later acknowledge that this attitude made it inappropriate for the agency to be involved in the Eastern case in any way. Rather than change its attitude or policy, FAA headquarters simply removed itself from the Eastern investigation."


The FAA Administrator as Grand Poohbah (pp. 58-63)

"FAA administrators are always appointees, men (they have always been men) [Ed. note: this was written before the appointment of Jane Garvey] who for decades built contacts in the upper echelons of the military or aviation industry, ties that eventually led them to believe they deserved to rest on their laurels for a couple of years at the FAA. And why not? The salary was good, the title lofty, the responsibilities few and the perks munificent. The Administrator, for example, always had a butler. The white-jacketed steward would quietly shuttle into the FAA leader's office with trays of fine china stamped with the FAA seal, pots of steaming coffee, and pastry. His quiet fussing around the edges of many meetings and his unobtrusive slipping in and out ('I'll get my boy to bring that,' I heard one administrator say) with papers or to collect dishes sometimes made me feel as if I had stepped into a scene from the British Raj. It was puzzling -- government officials are not allowed to have personal-service employees. No one below the level of Deputy Secretary can have a personal driver, but the Administrator did. And no one is supposed to have a butler. But the FAA Administrator had this steward -- in my office, we nicknamed him 'the houseboy' -- a gofer who brought breakfast in the morning and fetched throughout the day. His presence seemed to reflect a military style of management -- the retired Army and Navy men who came to the FAA were accustomed to having junior officers who served as stewards.

"But then the FAA Administrator headed a veritable fiefdom from his enormous office. His comfortable suite, with a large salon area for entertaining guests and an adjacent conference room, was the gateway to the FAA for industry executives, lobbyists and politicians. The office always looked impressive and ceremonial; his underlings' desks could be collapsing from the weight of paperwork, but the Administrator never had anything on his large gleaming table except matching leather desk sets and expensive models of airplanes soaring toward the ceiling. The message was not lost on anyone -- the Administrator was not there to administer, but rather to act as an emissary.

. . .

"Candidates for administrator knew the FAA was essentially a flying club. Immediately upon joining the FAA, they found themselves commanding their own fleet of aircraft. Administrators are usually pilots themselves, and most are eager to maintain or increase their flight "ratings" or their licenses to fly different craft. Suddenly they are faced with an opportunity to earn a license on a Gulfstream or a Lear jet, or on a helicopter -- for free. Once certified, they then can fly themselves around on private jetes. Keeping that license up-to-date in turn becomes the rationale for zooming around the world on FAA jets. Watching [FAA Administrator] Busey's jet-setting schedule, I wondered how an administrator could attend daily meetings and keep up with FAA business if he was always on the way to the airport.

. . .

"Naturally someone else had to run the FAA. The Administrator generally displayed little knowledge about the inner workings of the FAA, anyway, and the Deputy Administrator even less. Thus the Administrator's duties fell to the career FAA officials who were around before him and would be there after he left. For their part, the FAA staff were confident they rarely had to defer to or consult with the Administrator. This became clear at staff and agency meetings in my first year, when the Administrator would frequently sit with folded hands, no papers or reports in front of him, waving questions of facts or figures off on assistants. When the Administrator testified before Congress, an underling was always sitting nearby so he could lean away from his microphone to get the right answer.

. . .

"For all intents and purposes, the FAA is a corporation with 50,000 employees and an $8.5 billion annual budget. It is responsible for a major economic product. Yet its chief executive officer is essentially a goodwill ambassador, a figurehead who knows little about its daily business, spends the majority of his time slapping backs at conventions and cannot get attention or respect from his underlings. Management is not expected of the head of the FAA. A desire to promote aviation is essential, however, and the Administrator's job is filled, performed and judged purely on his success at ensuring harmony between the agency and the industry. Administrators like Hinson needed no convincing -- they came to their jobs devoted to promoting commercial aviation. Another problem for administrators, however, was the temporary nature of their jobs -- most kept the appointment far less than four years. Since they knew they'd be moving on soon, they rarely kept on top of the issues. Perhaps the most painful episode came after David Hinson had been at the FAA for two and a half years. By December 1995, Hinson openly told me that he couldn't do everything he wanted because he 'had less than a year to go.' I was discouraged by this blatant admission of impotence. He had to know he was essentially washing his hands of any leadership, and that the message would quickly filter down to the 'troops.' Once again, staff and field employees could just sit back and wait out the Administrator. I watched as he routinely ordered 'a study' of some of our most disturbing findings of abuse. 'Studies' meant nothing would get done. An FAA official assigned to Vice President Gore's task force to 'reinvent' government confirmed the FAA's policy of inaction. In speaking to a group of inspector generals, he laughed and said, 'You know what the FAA does with your reports? We study them for a year and the issue goes away.'

... [E]veryone assumed that the Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification, Anthony Broderick, was the real power behind the throne -- he set the FAA's agenda, decided the FAA's position on safety and acted as a filter between the Administrator and everyone else. So perhaps he said it best when he was finally forced out of his job: 'Who is setting aviation policy, making budget decisions and being out front on major policy issues? I do not think you would point to the FAA Administrator."


The FAA Follows the Money (pp. 88-90)

"Like other industry groups, aviation has a powerful, diverse lobby base with deep pockets -- staffed, funded and backed by groups like the Airline Transport Association, the Regional Carriers Association, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Alaska Air Carriers, individual airlines, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Pratt & Whitney, and contractors like IBM, Wilcox Electronics and Loral. But it isn't only private industry that curries favor with politicians; the FAA does its own share of back scratching, too. It may not have money to spread around, but it does have its fleet of planes, and it is not at all reluctant to chauffeur politicans around the country and fly members of Congress around on 'fact-finding missions.' Scheduling hearings in Alaska was another favorite tactic used by the FAA and by certain senators. Surely it was only coincidence if these hearings coincided with Senators Stevens's or Murkowski's salmon fishing tournaments. One of Hinson's trips to Alaska made news when he damaged the plane's landing gear as he overshot a runway that day. But never mind -- he got a waiver from the FAA to keep flying.

"Still, it is the aviation industry -- represented by private businesses, trade groups and lobbyists -- that gives millions of dollars to politicians every year. The Federal Election Commission reported that the transportation industry -- a list made up of Northwest, Continental and United airlines, Federal Express Corporation, Clipper Express and the Airline Brokers Co., Inc. -- gave the Democratic Party $1,348,008 between January 1995 and June 1996. A similar group made up of Federal Express, Northwest and UPS contributed an overall $2 million to the Republican Party. These donations are called 'soft money,' because they allow donors to contribute to political parties and circumvent the $1,000 limit on donations to individual politicians. It isn't only money that influences politics and political parties. Commercial airlines are economic powerhouses in their communities, like USAir in North Carolina and Virginia, American Airlines in Texas, or ValuJet and Delta in Georgia. They represent not only economic force and commercial viability, but a strong connection to the rest of the world. Politicians understand that if an airline leaves a community, jobs and resources leave, too, but something more is lost -- the sense that the community is a vibrant hub, a place worth staying in. Aviation is sexy, and that is a powerful pull as well. Nobody's adrenaline flows when the subject is washing mahcines, but flying excites people. I had discovered early that members of Congress were lined up behind commercial aviation, just as the FAA was. Members who championed safety were the exception, everyone else the rule. The issues did not break down along party lines -- if a politician had an airline or aircraft manufacturer in his district or state, then it didn't matter whether he was a Republican or Democrat. He'd be for airlines.

. . .

"Many trade groups do legwork for politicians and their staff -- compiling testimony and repoerts, packing hearing rooms, hiring key Hill personnel as their lobbyists themselves. I cannot count the number of congressional staffers I have worked with over the years who are now lobbyists. But I remember only a few ever showing up to lobby for safety, and they were not usually invited to testify. They had to make their points in the hallway outside the hearing room. Trade groups and individual lobbyists represent airlines and the aviation industry -- not the concerns of passengers."