Was The Faa Asleep At The Joystick?


By Mary Schiavo with Sabra Chartrand

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In the days following the horrifying crash of ValuJet Flight 592 into the Florida Everglades last year, many federal regulators and aviation-industry officials rushed to soft-pedal the catastrophe. Suggesting that the incident was an anomaly, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, David Hinson, went so far as to say: "The airline is safe to fly. I would fly it." Added then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena: "ValuJet is a safe airline, as is our entire aviation system."

Luckily, Mary Schiavo, the nation's top watchdog over aviation safety, was on the scene to confront such complacency: Federal regulators eager to promote startup airlines such as ValuJet may have contributed to the crash by failing to enforce their own safety rules, she said. "It's not my job to sell tickets on ValuJet," she added in a remark that in typical fashion bluntly challenged her colleagues' approach.

Flying Blind, Flying Safe is a memoir of Schiavo's six years spent as inspector general of the Transportation Dept. and a guide to airline-policy changes she would like to see. The author recalls the ValuJet episode and other incidents with pointed disdain. Time after time, she recalls, federal bureaucrats chose to side with aviation-industry officials instead of looking out for the interests of the people they were supposed to protect. This thesis gets hammered home, as Schiavo and her co-writer, New York Times reporter Sabra Chartrand, survey evidence of free spending by the FAA and airports, lax airport security, and the use of counterfeit airplane parts.

In this often amusing, sometimes frightening book, Schiavo chronicles just how chaotic and self-serving the federal government can be. However, her account also shows that individuals still can make a difference in Washington.

"What I did not anticipate was the fortitude I'd need to be able to live with making enemies," Schiavo writes, recalling the storms her investigations created. "I knew there would be opponents outside government. But, in fact, the most forceful came from inside the Department of Transportation...."

There's little doubt that Schiavo was prepared for such challenges--she began bucking conventions as a girl. While classmates in her hometown of Pioneer, Ohio, were concerning themselves with proms, jobs after high school, or college prospects, the 18-year-old Schiavo was earning her pilot's license. She went on to Harvard University, law school at New York University, and then, in her first big career break, a job as a federal prosecutor in Kansas City. It was a position that Schiavo says prepared her well for the murky crosscurrents of federal government. Schiavo was considered so tough, she recounts proudly, that she was dubbed Maximum Mary.

Next came a posting as a White House fellow and then one as assistant secretary at the Labor Dept. Although Schiavo was clearly having a stellar career, she worked in relative obscurity. All that changed in 1990, when Maximum Mary was appointed inspector general at Transportation.

Almost immediately, Schiavo brought her investigative skills, tenacity, and straightforward speaking style to bear. She focused public and congressional attention on lapses in airport security, the prevalence of counterfeit parts in the nation's airplane fleet, and gross mismanagement at the FAA. Schiavo turned what traditionally had been a low-key, insider job--one that had been geared primarily to budget questions--into a national forum about the safety troubles that had gone largely unchecked for decades.

Consider her thoughts on the FAA's handling of ValuJet: "The FAA didn't fall down just on ValuJet. It was incompetent at virtually all of its inspection responsibilities. It failed to watch over the examiners who certified aircraft mechanics; it was sloppy about inspecting aircraft parts; it gave up altogether on surveying foreign factories that manufactured airplane engine and body components; it paid lip service to thousands of airplane checkups and pilot tests."

One of the amusing chapters in the book is entitled, "Relative Truth: CULT-ure at the FAA." Schiavo recounts her investigation into the agency's employment of a psychologist named Gregory May, who ran FAA training seminars. May relied on such techniques as sleep and food deprivation. One of his instructors for a seminar entitled "five element training" sniffed students' clothes in a quest to classify the person as either water, wood, fire, earth, or metal. Outlandish? Undoubtedly. Still, May managed to win contracts with the FAA for more than a decade, raking in at least $1.6 million. Finally, in April, 1996, he was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to six months in prison. To Schiavo, the entire episode was just one more example of how the agency was adrift.

The writing in the book is engaging, and Schiavo bolsters her own credibility by naming names. However, the account comes up short in some ways. Schiavo skimps on details of her own life. Just how did Schiavo become a White House fellow, and how important were Republican political contacts to her winning the job at Transportation? For those who have closely followed the FAA's recent missteps, there are few new revelations. Schiavo urges travelers to gather safety information on airlines, but she overlooks how hard it is to obtain such data.

Still, Flying Blind, Flying Safe is an incisive primer on what ails the aviation industry and the feds' regulation of it. And in a city dominated by slippery rhetoric and self-interest, Schiavo's bluntness is welcome relief.

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