The good news is that Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña is finally leaving Washington. The bad news is that he was ever invited to come in the first place and that he is not leaving not in disgrace.
On May 11, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Everglades. The next day, practically before the plane had settled on the bottom, Peña rushed to the accident site and proclaimed the airline safe. ValuJet has "in some cases even exceeded the safety standards that we have at the FAA," he said at a briefing in the Everglades less than 24 hours after the crash. "ValuJet is safe to fly."
On May 2, just nine days before the ValuJet crash, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a division of the Peñas own Department of Transportation (DOT), produced a report on the safety records of the various airlines. Far from "exceeding" FAA standards, ValuJets record was a nightmare.
Of nine so-called "start-up" airlines analyzed there were six accidents between them. Five of these involved ValuJet. Of accidents labeled "serious," there were three, all involving ValuJet. Compared with the record of the high-fare carriers (such as American and United), ValuJets accident record was 14 times higher. Its serious accident rate was 32 times higher.
The May 2 report was a mere nine pages long, a five-minute read. Yet Peña appeared on two television shows the day after the ValuJet crash waving those pages and citing them as proof of ValuJets safety. "Weve looked at the safety record of both the low-cost carriers and the so-called higher-cost carriers," he said on the NBC program Today. "The safety records are comparable." He made the same claim on This Week with David Brinkley.
But as the report and a special cover attached to the report just for Peña noted, the safety records were equivalent only because so many of the low-cost flights involved Southwest. Pull out Southwest and the low-cost carriers look like a disaster, all because of ValuJets poor record.
Not only did Peña misrepresent the May 2 report, he must have known about its contents long before then. "I dont know that it told anybody anything new around here," said the reports preparer, FAA analyst Bob Matthews. "That data is pretty easily available to anybody."
Indeed, FAA documents obtained by the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed at least four inspections of ValuJet since 1993 reporting, "widespread safety problems that were neither fully investigated nor corrected" according to the newspaper. Further, a Defense Department inspection of the airlines maintenance oversight in August 1995 declared it "Unsatisfactory."
By February 7 of this year, the situation was so critical that staffers from the FAA Inspector Generals (IG) office met with FAA inspectors over the matter. Documents show the IGs staff talked about more than a dozen safety problems at the airline. The head of that staff, Mary Schiavo, said later that she decided on that date, "I wouldnt get on [ValuJet] because of the number of incidents that have been reported."
Seven days later, an internal FAA memo suggested that ValuJet be shut down pending correction of its safety problems. On May 6, just five days before Flight 592 went down, an FAA preliminary draft report found more than 100 ValuJet safety violations.
Schiavo told me that she had repeatedly attempted to relay her concerns to Peña, going through his chief of staff Ann Bormolini. But Peña claims Bormolini never told him anything. Goodness, what a strange thing to keep secret from your boss! In any case, immediately after the ValuJet crash, Bormolini quit and scurried back to Denver, where shes harder to find than Salman Rushdie.
So why did Peña turn a deaf ear to all the warnings about ValuJet? Go back to April 23 of this year. The DOT released a report titled "The Low Cost Airline Service Revolution." In it, Peña claimed that "start-up" airlines were providing tremendous savings to the American public — indeed $6.3 billion over the last year. Most of the credit, he said, went to his boss. "These developments are, in large part, the outgrowth of President Clintons effort to support new-entrant carriers," Peña boasted.
Yet one of those "start-up" airlines was Southwest, which began service back in 1971 when Clinton was plotting his presidential run, to be sure, but was still 23 years from his inauguration. Indeed, Southwest accounted for three-fourths of the flights of the so-called "start-ups." Pull Southwest out of the equation and theres little left of those "tremendous savings." Pull out ValuJet and whats left is about enough to buy a latte at Starbucks.
So Peña didnt pull out ValuJet; he didnt ground it.
Now he gets to go home to Denver, probably to do what other former cabinet officials do and become rich by influence pedaling. After all, he served the Clinton Administration well.
But the cost of his PR for Clinton can be measured in human lives. "One hundred and ten people were sacrificed for politics in an election year," Michael Boyd, president of Aviation Systems Research Corporation in Golden, Colorado told me. "And Federico Peña has their blood on his hands."
Incredibly, Peña said Clinton offered him another post in the cabinet, but he turned it down. Then again, maybe its not so incredible after all.