NTSB official blasts FAA at ValuJet hearing
TWA, Delta once carried oxygen canisters too, documents showNovember 21, 1996
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- A federal safety official was openly critical of the Federal Aviation Administration Thursday for its lack of personnel and for failing to adequately oversee the operation of ValuJet Airlines.
National Transportation Safety Board official John Goglia, chairing a public hearing into the May 11 crash of ValuJet Flight 592, made his comments during sometimes heated exchanges with the FAA's Robert Bruce, the FAA official in charge of inspecting ValuJet operations.
Bruce testified he was so overworked he had to borrow inspectors from other departments and take home work just to keep up.
"I am troubled by what you told me about your work load," Goglia said. "If you have to take work home to get work down, and your supervisors knew about this, then there is a problem."
His voice rising, Goglia then demanded to know the name of Bruce's supervisor.
His remarks prompted applause from the families of ValuJet victims attending the hearing.
Bruce was also asked about a letter he wrote to ValuJet on March 1994 in which he expressed concerns about the airline and said its operations were unsafe.
In the letter, Bruce cited concerns over ValuJet's pilot training program and quickness with which the airline was training its pilots in order to get them flying.
Bruce testified that ValuJet was running so many pilots through its training program that he had to borrow personnel from other departments to keep up with their certification.
In a second letter written in February 1996, Bruce told ValuJet, "It is apparent that ValuJet does not have the structure in place to handle your rapid growth and that you may have an organizational culture that is in conflict with operating with the highest possible degree of safety."
He again cited concerns about the pilot training program as well as incidents in which ValuJet planes had maintenance problems or slid off runways.
Bruce was preceded to the stand by Bruce Butterworth, the head of the FAA's security operations. He testified that the FAA had too few inspection personnel but had increased the number of its inspectors from 20 to 148.
Butterworth said the FAA intends to file criminal charges against anyone sending hazardous materials on an airline in violation of FAA rules. But NTSB board member Barry Sweedler said he was still troubled by the inspection program.
"I still don't have a good feeling that this type of accident couldn't happen again," Sweedler said. "What can you tell me that would make me feel more comfortable that this wouldn't happen again?"
Butterworth said there was not much he could say. "If a perfectly innocent box gets put in cargo, there's nothing we can do," he said.
"You can't open all the boxes. But you can expect and encourage inspectors to be alert."
Improperly stored oxygen-generating canisters in a cargo hold are blamed for a deadly fire that broke out aboard Flight 592 shortly after takeoff May 11. It plunged into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard.
ValuJet has blamed its outside maintenance company, SabreTech, for not putting safety caps on the canisters. An airline executive acknowledged in earlier testimony that the carrier was responsible for the work of its contractors.
Two other airlines, Delta and TWA, were also shipping oxygen generators until recently, NTSB documents show.
But TWA shipped only its own generators and had approval to do so, company spokesman John McDonald said Thursday. He said they were always discharged before being packed into approved, properly labeled containers.
Delta spokesman Bill Berry said Delta halted all canister shipments when ordered to do so by the FAA in the wake of the ValuJet crash.
Last December, a Delta oxygen generator discharged and caused a fire in an airport area where the canisters were being disposed of, Berry said.
It was not near an airplane or waiting to be loaded onto a plane, he said, adding that an investigation showed no signs of sabotage in the fire. Delta halted shipping used canisters shortly afterward, Berry said, but shipped new ones until the FAA order a few months later. Even when the airline was shipping canisters, he said, it was careful to follow safety measures.Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.
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