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FAA confronts more intense scrutiny, workload

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November 22, 1996
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EST

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series looking at airline oversight in the wake of the ValuJet crash

From Correspondent Carl Rochelle

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The holiday travel season hasn't even started, but 1996 already is one of the deadliest years on record for airlines.

Just this week, a commuter plane landing at the Quincy airport in Illinois hit a small twin-engine aircraft taking off. There were 14 dead, and no survivors.

All 110 people aboard the ValuJet crash in May died when the plane literally went down in flames, apparently because mislabeled oxygen canisters caught fire in the cargo hold.

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"People make mistakes, and it's a terrible tragedy," said Carl Vogt, former National Transportation Safety Board chairman. "It is not, in any way an indictment of the aviation system, it's an aberration."

After the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration took a hard look at ValuJet and shut it down until maintenance and training problems were corrected.

The FAA also found it too has deficiencies. "The FAA got caught off guard with ValuJet. They came to admit that they could not, as a government agency, keep pace with the numbers of inspectors needed in an operation growing very quickly," said Vogt.

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In the wake of the tragedy the FAA added inspectors and tightened its oversight of U.S. airlines. But planes flying outside the U.S. -- like the Peruvian airliner that crashed into the Pacific last month killing all 70 on board -- are not subject to FAA scrutiny.

"When you go into a different part of the world, of course that is beyond the jurisdiction of the FAA. Then I think you need to have some concerns," said Vogt.

Then there is the still-unsolved crash in July of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island.

In the wake of the recent rash of accidents, a contentious issue has developed over whether it is safe to fly older aircraft.

"The question is when is an aircraft too old to be up there," said Vernon Grose, former official of the NTSB.

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Added Vogt: "As long as they are well maintained and looked after -- there is no mandatory age limit on an aircraft."

The FAA predicts more than 2 million passengers will fly in the U.S. alone by the year 2001, up from one 1.5 million today.

That means more planes in the sky and more potential accidents. To blunt the threat, the FAA is beefing up the air traffic control system. Tougher crew training requirements are in place, and commuter airlines are now being held to the same safety standards as the larger airlines.

 
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