Cowboys in the sky

With lax regulators and daredevil pilots, we can expect more nightmarish crashes like that of ValuJet Flight 592

Published May 13, 1996 10:40AM (EDT)

Accidents happen. Air travel, statistically speaking, is the safest method of transportation. Karmically speaking, if your number is up, well, your number is up.

Of course, the families of the victims of the ValuJet DC-9 which dove head-first into the alligator-infested swamps of the Florida Everglades on Saturday might not get much comfort from such bromides. They might want some answers. Like:

  • Just how carefully did the FAA inspect ValuJet -- which, according to an FAA internal memo, had a "significant decrease in the experience level of new pilots being well as other positions, such as mechanics and dispatchers" -- before giving it a clean bill of health last month?
  • If Transportation Secretary Federico Pena is so confident that the low-cost, high-profit airline is safe, then why has the FAA now announced it intends to go over ValuJet's records once again, this time with a fine tooth comb?
  • Did, for example, the ill-fated DC-9 have a prior history of oil leaks, loss of cabin pressure and other maintenance problems? (Company officials refuse to confirm or deny this.)
  • And while Secretary Pena says he has no problem flying ValuJet, how does he explain the refusal of his department's own inspector general, Mary Schiavo, to fly the airline "because of its many mishaps?"

Such questions might be broadened to include the FAA itself -- a government agency that is particularly adept at circling the wagons when things go wrong. Aviation experts for a long time have been highly critical of its performance. As noted in Monday's
New York Times
, the FAA "has been criticized in recent weeks for poor management of its inspectors, who represent the front line of safety oversight, including the time-consuming tasks of approving training and operations manuals for new airlines and enforcing standards that many aviation safety experts say should be tougher." Inspector general Schiavo put it more succinctly in a May 20 Newsweek essay: "I keep seeing the holes in the safety net -- gaps in regulation and oversight that produce spectacular cases like ValuJet."

But that is not the whole story. In a political environment that regards government regulators as enemies of the people, hard-pressed FAA inspectors aren't the only ones to blame for such gaping holes in an increasingly unregulated, almost anarchic industry. There is another mentality at work, one over which rules and regulations have little control. It's a "Top Gun," flyboy arrogance that has contributed to other recent air tragedies, like the crashes which took the lives of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and seven-year-old Jessica Dubroff. In both cases, experienced pilots -- military in the case of the Ron Brown flight, civilian in the case of the flight instructor who accompanied young Jessica -- adopted a devil-may-care insouciance in the face of dreadful flying conditions.

These pilot-error catastrophes do not appear to be isolated instances. Crash investigators, as Monday's Wall Street Journal reports, are finding more and more of this kind of human error responsible for major disasters. As an example, the article cites the Dec. 20, 1995 crash of an American Airlines Boeing 757 that flew into a mountain near the Cali, Colombia airport, killing 160 people. The crew was highly experienced, properly rested, and at the controls of a Boeing model that had previously been crash-free. For all that, crash investigators concluded, the disaster was rooted in "fundamental crew errors, compounded by a lapse in discipline and seeming disregard for the dangers of the rugged terrain."

What are these pilots and entrepreneurial airline cost-cutters afraid of -- being labeled sissies? Are they so soaked in media images that they imagine themselves to be Tom Cruise breaking the sound barrier in between bedding a curvaceous Kelly McGillis? Or Howard Hughes on the road to unimaginable riches and fame via buccannering business practices?

These recent tragedies should serve as a broader wake-up call, rather than just occasions for heart-breaking media photo ops and lawyer ambulance-chasing. Sure, accidents like this will happen -- about four times a month in the near future, as air traffic keeps growing by leaps and bounds, warn federal safety officials. Which is why the regulators need to be encouraged to aggressively perform their jobs -- and the sky riders need to hang up their Stetsons.

Has an anti-regulatory mood and a reckless flyboy attitude combined to make the skies more dangerous? Sound off in Table Talk.

Last wishes

The public was riveted by the film "Dead Man Walking," the
real-life drama of Sister Mary Prejean counseling a condemned man. California prison officials were less impressed when they sought to ban a spiritual adviser from counseling a death row inmate during the last six hours of his life.


While the real-life drama of California's latest execution moved toward its post-midnight climax recently, the media focused on what, to them, was the essence of the story: themselves.

The media had filed-- and won -- a law suit to widen public
access to the execution process, on the grounds that the public have a right to know the entire nature of the condemned's encounter with death. But rather than seizing the opportunity to probe the legal and personal struggles of Keith Daniel Williams, the media preferred to highlight their own battle with the law. On talk shows, in news reports, in editorials, the issue of media access was the overriding issue of the day.

Lost in this self-absorption was a richer and more disturbing story: the battle by the California Department of Corrections
to prevent Williams from having access to his own spiritual advisor
during the last six hours of his life.

The rationale, CDC lawyers argued, was to protect the identity of the execution team. However, Marin County Superior Court Judge Gary Thomas ruled against the department, noting that the proposed restrictions "would deny the plaintiff the presence of his chosen spiritual advisor..." He also ordered the spiritual adviser never to identify any member of the execution team.

Unsatisfied, the CDC sought, on the morning preceding the execution, to ban the spiritual adviser for her own protection. "If there is any resistance by the inmate," the Deputy Attorney General argued, "she could be in line and in danger." Not a single media representative attended the hearing -- much less opined about the issue raised.

Judge Thomas was not impressed. At stake, he pointed out,
was nothing less than "the salvation of (Mr. Williams') immortal soul,
which is the foundation of religion, his belief that he has an immortal
soul, something to be redeemed." Once again, Judge Thomas ordered the CDC "up until the time he enters the execution chamber" not to disturb the intimate, mysterious spiritual process designed to permit the dying man to leave the world in a state of grace.

With just hours left in Williams' life, the CDC appealed Judge Thomas' ruling to the state Supreme Court. The court ruled the advisor could remain with Williams until 11:15 p.m., or until the physical preparations for the execution, whichever was later. The CDC took this as permission to separate Williams and his minister at precisely 11:15 p.m., which they did.

A second battle raged around the communion wafer Williams was entitled -- or not -- to receive. The CDC had prohibited his spiritual adviser from bringing in consecrated host for communion on the grounds that it might have been adulterated with drugs (i.e. dipped in LSD). The court ordered the prison to supply the host. Once inside, however, the spiritual adviser was informed by the prison's legal affairs coordinator that only matzoh would be available because she was "not a Catholic."

The media's fixation on the access issue began when William Bonin was put to death two months ago. Then public scrutiny was limited to viewing a comatose man lying on a gurney as lethal fluids were pumped into his veins. This time, federal court judge Vaughn Walker ruled that witnesses must be allowed to view Danny Williams' execution from at least the point where the needle is inserted into the prisoner. But Judge Walker emphasized that the state was under no obligation, constitutional or otherwise, to admit even a single reporter to cover an execution. It is the public, not the media per se, which has the right to bear witness.

Perhaps the public would be better informed were the media banned as official witnesses of public executions. Denied such a self-serving role, they might pay more attention to the process itself, including the struggle of the condemned to go out in a religious manner.

) Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Multi-million dollar bonus baby

"We're successful. It's like being with the '27 Yankees: everybody's happy... It's a free market and people have choices."

-- John F. Welch Jr., CEO of General Electric, on criticisms about the widening disparity between senior executive pay and their employees. Welch reportedly earned $22 million, including stock and options, in 1995.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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