ValuJet crash cause to be reported

By Randolph E. Schmid Associated Press Writer Published:

"Had that recommendation been implemented, it's only questionable whether the ValuJet accident would have happened at all," Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

On Tuesday, the question of what happened and who was to blame for the May 11, 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 people aboard will be the subject of a public NTSB meeting. The agency's report will analyze the accident and assign a probable cause.

While details of the report are not yet known, the crash has had a marked effect on the Federal Aviation Administration and the industry it regulates. Since the crash:

The top leaders of the Transportation Department and the FAA have been replaced.

The FAA added hundreds of new inspectors, and teams began placing special scrutiny on startup airlines.

New rules banned dangerous oxygen generators from airplane cargo holds. Other rules that have not yet taken effect would require fire detectors and extinguishers in the holds of all airplanes, which Hall said the NTSB first recommended in 1988.

ValuJet, once the darling of the low-price carriers, decided to change its name and is struggling to rebuild its business.

Airline safety data became available via the Internet.

But that's far from enough to those who lost loved ones, such as Deborah Landrum of Plano, Texas. She considers the FAA criminally negligent in the crash that killed her sister, Terri Watkins Bell.

"The FAA has messed up," Landrum said in a telephone interview. "They still, to this day, have the tombstone mentality they had a year-and-a-half, two years ago. They need desperately to make changes."

"They've been in a holding pattern," added Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the Transportation Department who has been critical of ValuJet and the FAA's oversight of it. "For the first few months they (the FAA) were pretty much shellshocked and then they were without a leader until last week. I don't think there's been much change at all."

Blame is likely to focus on the airline itself; SabreTech, a contractor whose workers packed a load of oxygen generators implicated in starting the fire that brought the plane down, and whether the FAA adequately supervised the two companies.

In the days after the crash, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson insisted ValuJet was safe and encouraged people to keep using the budget carrier.

But a month later, investigators had turned up 34 violations by the airline, including delayed maintenance, failure to repair jammed landing gear, cabin doors that wouldn't lock and a weather radar system on one aircraft that was inoperative. And they discovered inspectors had known about some of the problems for months.

The airline was grounded and the FAA's safety chief, Anthony Broderick, resigned under pressure.

Pena and Hinson announced changes in the agency that included tougher oversight requirements for contractors and maintenance programs and more supervision by inspectors, especially in an airline's first five years of operation.

By the end of 1996, both Pena and Hinson had also left their posts; Hinson retired and Pena became energy secretary.

ValuJet, struggling to recover from losses caused by the crash and grounding, decided to change its name and image. It bought AirTran Airways for $66.3 million in stock. The takeover will erase ValuJet's name and _ company executives hope _ the memory of the Florida disaster.

The FAA now has 11 inspectors committed to oversight of ValuJet, compared with three at the time of the crash.

Safety board investigators believe the ValuJet crash resulted from a fire in the cargo hold. The load of chemical oxygen generators has been blamed for starting the blaze.

The generators provide oxygen in an emergency, but produce high heat when used. They are safe in specially designed compartments aboard planes, but are considered hazardous materials when carried as cargo.

ValuJet was not authorized to haul hazardous cargo and has sought to blame its contractor, SabreTech, for mislabeling and packing the oxygen devices.

A ban on carrying the generators as cargo was issued shortly after the crash. It is expected to be extended to all oxygen-producing devices and chemicals.

Since the ban was put in place, the FAA has investigated 14 incidents in which generators were allegedly carried on planes. Five cases involved passenger planes but no accidents occurred.

In June of this year, the FAA announced rules requiring that all airline cargo compartments have fire detectors and extinguishers by 2001.

Airplanes with ventilated cargo holds already have the extinguishers, but 3,000 planes with sealed holds fall under the new rules, Hall said. The equipment had not previously been required for those planes because it was assumed that lack of oxygen would extinguish any fire that might break out in the holds.

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