THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION'S decision to upgrade safety inspections on older airplanes came about a week too late.
In response to the ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades that claimed 110 lives on May 11, the FAA announced that it's stepping up monitoring activities on all ValuJet flights. Since the crash, several aviation officials have criticized the start-up airline for its spotty safety record. Mary Schiavo, inspector general for the Department of Transportation, caused a minor uproar a few days ago when she told an interviewer that she refuses to fly ValuJet due to personal concerns about the airline's safety.Recent congressional testimony by the General Accounting Office - released just two weeks prior to the ValuJet crash - suggests that increasing the number of inspectors might not be the only answer. According to their comments, recent budget cuts have ravaged the agency's ability to train its inspectors to do their jobs.
As of last year, the FAA had only 2,500 safety inspectors to oversee more than 7,500 commercial aircraft, 11,000 charter planes, 184,000 private planes and 665,000 active pilots. For nearly a decade, congressional overseers have asked the agency to concentrate its efforts where they're most needed. But after nine years, the effort has yielded few results.
In dramatic testimony given behind a screen to hide their identities, FAA inspectors told a congressional panel three weeks ago that they were often assigned jobs for which they weren't qualified. After interviewing more than 50 inspectors, GAO investigators feared that lack of training was a systemwide problem.
"Because of the magnitude of the inspectors' workload," one GAO official testified, "targeting (of resources) is essential because FAA may never have enough resources to inspect all pilots, aircraft and facilities. . . . Our work has shown persistent problems with FAA's training of inspectors. Specifically, inspectors have been unable to take courses that they believe are necessary to perform their inspection responsibilities."
Embattled FAA Administrator David Hinson has said the agency plans to speed up the hiring of at least 90 new safety inspectors and added that his agency is working overtime to upgrade its computer training facilities. But the new inspectors might be just a small plug in an ever-growing dike.
According to some estimates, total airline traffic in the United States is expected to double over the next decade. In the meantime, governmentwide budget pressure has forced the FAA to reduce its budget for technical training by 42 percent between fiscal years 1993 and 1996. According to Gerald L. Dillingham of the GAO, it's budget cuts - not FAA management problems - that are most to blame for the training shortfall.