Mary Schiavo’s KIRO Radio Interview

Related to the Boeing 787 grounding, KIRO Radio in Seattle interviewed former DoT Inspector General (DoT-IG) Mary Schiavo on Wednesday, January 30th. An audio clip of just over five-minutes is available online. KIRO audio clip

…an excerpt from an Autumn 1998 article
by Neal Lawrence at Midwest Today

“…The FAA has long been accused by critics of coddling the airlines, and in the case of ValuJet, it appears that the agency bent over backwards to keep the carrier flying.

“Certainly the FAA knew there were serious problems with the discount carrier, but gave the airline a reprieve by launching a 120-day review – allowing it to fly in the interim. That review was three-fourths finished when Flight 592 crashed.

“Nine years earlier, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that fire detectors and suppression systems be installed in airplane cargo holds. Then-NTSB Chairman Carl Vogt told FAA administrator David Hinson that “a fire should not be allowed to persist in any state of intensity in an airplane without the knowledge of the flight crew.”

“But the FAA brass sided with the airlines, saying the devices were not cost efficient. That decision saved the airlines millions of dollars. Passengers ended up with dime-store smoke alarms in cabin restrooms (to make sure nobody sneaked a cigarette), but nothing in the cargo compartments, where combustible materials were stowed.

“Astonishingly, in the days following the ValuJet crash, David Hinson and Transportation Sec. Federico Pena assured travellers that ValuJet was safe to fly. The U.S. Inspector General for the Dept. of Transportation, Mary Schiavo, publicly challenged such assertions, and ValuJet was grounded temporarily.

“Acting on an anonymous tip, she even sent federal agents to a meeting of top FAA heads to seize an incriminating internal memo showing the agency was aware of serious deficiencies in ValuJet’s operation long before the crash and, in fact, had been warned that it should be grounded. Officials at first denied the existence of such a memo, but the next day it was released in a stack of papers.

“Now with Mary Schiavo no longer in a position to keep a watchful eye on U.S. airlines, and a chaotic FAA without a director, airlines seem to be getting bolder all the time.”

In the interview, Schiavo points most of her criticism at FAA for their failed oversight. She said it was a departure for the FAA, “…allowing a system that could overheat, catch fire, or in some cases explode, but they were going to allow it to be contained.” 

A few links:
(hover on the links for descriptions)



Schiavo knows this subject very well. In fact, she is widely considered a hero to advocates of U.S. aviation safety (and widely despised by many of the people in places of aviation power). She was DoT-IG from 1990 to 1996. Her tenure included numerous incidents where, to the average citizen, it was clear she was continually pressured by both FAA and DoT to tone it down and not do her job. Her six years also included one of the most horrific air crashes in U.S. history: when Valujet caught fire and dove into the Everglades, east of Miami. The ValuJet crash was attributed to an intense fire in the cargo hold, started when improperly stowed oxygen generators self-ignited. However, ValuJet’s rapid growth as a low-cost carrier, using older DC-9’s and outsourcing all maintenance, had resulted in a terrible performance record. So much so that, in August 1995, the Department of Defense rejected the use of ValuJet to move military personnel, issuing a scathing report critical of Valujet’s quality assurance.

At the time of the accident, FAA was three months into a four-month intensive review of ValuJet. Common sense suggests, if you hit a pedestrian or a fire hydrant while doing your driving test, you just failed. But, amazingly, despite the fact 110 died in the Everglades, FAA proceeded to sign off ValuJet. Not only that, but both Administrator Hinson and DoT Secretary Pena stood before cameras and reassured the public about their belief that Valujet was safe. DoT-IG Schiavo disagreed, expressed her opinion, and backed it up with internal documents. Transparency — as has rarely (if ever) been seen in aviation politics. It was five weeks later, due primarily to Mary Schiavo’s whistleblowing, that Hinson and Pena ate their words, when FAA finally de-certified ValuJet. The flip-flopping by the FAA Administrator and the DoT Secretary is so very similar to the timeline on the 787 battery fires, as witnessed this month.

“…the reason that there was so much backlash, is
they were just too quick to say, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’…”
Mary Schiavo, 9/25/09, being interviewed by FRONTLINE


In the 1990’s, Schiavo was not reserved with her criticism of ValuJet. She was also very critical of FAA’s failure to manage the widespread problem of unapproved bogus parts. She testified at a congressional hearing on 6/25/96, then resigned a few weeks later. Schiavo then wrote the book Flying Blind, Flying Safe, which made the NY Times bestseller’s list, and she has since applied her law degree representing aviation accident victims. She has consistently articulated clear criticisms of FAA, for their failure to correct problems and for fundamental conflicts of interest.