"It couldn't have come at a worse time"

Former Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner explains how the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 will affect the air travel industry.

Published November 13, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Samuel Skinner knows more than he would like about plane crashes and terrorism. When Pan Am Flight 103 exploded on Dec. 21, 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, Skinner was only weeks away from becoming President Bush's transportation secretary. Along with helping to coordinate the crash investigation, he also oversaw a "security enhancement task force" that aimed to make airports and airlines safer in the wake of the tragedy.

He spoke by phone with Salon about the significance of Monday's plane crash in Queens, N.Y.

How will today's crash affect the airline industry?

It's going to make people very uneasy. It couldn't have come at a worse time for the airlines. They were just getting back, just trying to recover. I think all of them will be affected. If we don't find a quick and satisfactory answer, you'll see a number of airlines file for bankruptcy before the end of the year.

So you think this will extend beyond American Airlines?

Oh yes. I don't think there's any question. Until we are able to ascertain that it's an American problem and it's a maintenance issue, or an aircraft issue that's in the process of being fixed, it will hurt everyone. Every time you have an accident like this, you see a falloff in travel -- sometimes with that individual airline, sometimes with airlines in general. Because this time the fear factor is already there, this will make people even more concerned, even more cautious. It's a terrible situation anytime, but it's even more horrific and more devastating in the wake of Sept. 11.

The [airlines] all have a run rate on cash, they're all burning cash at several million dollars a day. The question isn't just whether or not people will still be willing to travel; it's also a matter of whether they'll do it before the airlines run out of money.

Will matters be made worse because the crash came before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel seasons of the year?

Thanksgiving was pretty dead anyway. They didn't expect as much travel as usual this year. But my guess is that we'll see a lot of cancellations tomorrow. A lot more people will be driving.

Is there anything that suggests to you that this was a terrorist attack?

My initial reaction would be that this was an accident because if terrorists were going to do something, they would probably choose a domestic flight rather than an international flight. There's far more scrutiny on an international flight.

The timing and location of the airplane couldn't have been worse, crashing in the morning near New York. But from what I've seen and heard it looks highly likely that it's an accident that happened with the airplane. It has all the signs of an airplane accident. But there are still a lot of questions that have to be answered. There appears to have been no communication from the pilots. It seems to have been a normal takeoff. But we'll see.

How do you think the crash will affect the security bills being debated in Congress?

There's already tremendous pressure on getting a security bill and I assume this will add pressure. They'll probably try to get something out before Thanksgiving.

How long do you think it will be before investigators know if it was a terrorist attack?

We don't really know very much. We only know what the people who saw it saw. But they did recover the cockpit data recorder, so I think we'll get information that will tell us something relatively soon. It traditionally takes a year or more. But I would think that they might have something in several weeks. If they have the flight data recorders they will be able to see if there are indications that they normally see in accidents of this type. If they don't have enough information, or if the details don't fit other patterns, though, it could take a long time.

The real challenge that the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] is going to have is to come up with a quick and easy answer. Traditionally they do an excellent, methodical job, taking their time. Here, there's gong to be a lot of pressure to accelerate that process, mainly to discover whether or not it was an accident or an act of a terrorist.

The good news is that the NTSB is probably the most recognized and respected aviation safety organization in the world. They will have their best people on it and they're the best in the world. They'll have the cooperation of the engine manufacturer, the airplane manufacturer and the airline. So if anyone can get to the bottom of it they will.

Some have speculated that the biggest vulnerability for an airline is its cargo, its luggage. What are the chances the explosion witnesses saw came from a bomb in the cargo hull?

This was an international flight so all the luggage was matched with the passengers and the luggage was X-rayed. So I'm sure the first thing the FBI is doing is checking every passenger to see who they were. My guess is that they'll be able to quickly ascertain if that was a possibility, but I doubt that's what happened.

Accidents on aircraft happen for a variety of reasons. But the aviation industry still has quite a solid record for safety. Unfortunately, you can't prevent accidents 100 percent of the time.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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Air Travel Terrorism